If you take the train regularly, you would probably remember catching sight of the posters that quote results from a survey. The general message goes something like this: 99.99999% of the people said they would give up their seats to those who need them more (Read underlying intent: Give up your seat).
Though I’m doubtful about the effectiveness of the posters, I’m certain that we have experienced at least an encounter, if exaggerated, might be termed as a mental crisis.
Armed with my tightly stuffed backpack while straddling under the weight of my other miscellaneous belongings, I entered a cabin ready to stand through the journey all the way to the other end of the line. Unfortunately it was the peak period and before I knew it I was shoved into the center without intending to do so. Halfway through the ride, the passenger in front of me vacated the seat and I thought, finally my heavy eyelids get to rest in peace.
While I was tucking myself into a good train’s sleep, I vaguely caught sight of a woman with a bump. Here the dilemma begins: Pregnant, or just…horizontally challenged? A mental analysis ensued – 1) How often do I see pregnant ladies with bags slung diagonally across the body? 2) Would it be likely for a pregnant lady to hold a phone with both hands while gaming on a moving train?
Clearly, we have the answer. But I could be wrong. The dilemma escalates: What step do I take next? Despite my weary soul, I was ready to give up my seat. Yet such a decision would put her in humiliating embarrassment, which then becomes disastrously amplified by silent awkwardness among others around us, if she were indeed not pregnant.
Pondering the analysis made earlier, I quickly resolved the situation by continuing my journey half-asleep. It occurred to me that there exists another similar, slightly less frequent variant of the dilemma – the aged who embrace aging and the aged who fight aging. Some would be fine or even happy with the change in state of their hair, while others counter those silver linings with outlandish colours. Some think it’s an honour to acquire a countenance of maturity, while others innovatively try to conceal that. A replica of the dilemma is evident: though we might be ready to let them have the seat, such an act of kindness towards the latter would in fact not be kind at all; on the contrary, it is highly insensitive and wounds their very pride.
The fact that such a dilemma exists means that we do have the basic, slightest inkling of who needs the seat most, and more deeply (perhaps unconsciously and where less are ready to believe), dare I say, politeness.
Politeness, which causes us to comprehend the deeper need to save people we don’t even know from humiliation that the overly simplistic act of kindness brings. Politeness, which teaches us to empathize with strangers and remain seated even though it may outwardly seem as if we’re being completely inconsiderate, discourteous, and incredibly selfish. Politeness, when defined simply, is that of showing consideration for others.
So it turns out, ironically, we are in possession of that better than the external acts of kindness, which the posters and statistics imply we are incapable of. Maybe we’ve heard and said too often that our society needs to shape up, but fail to notice that we today are better than before. It’s time to put in a little trust and quit being a judge.
Trust that the basic instinct to exercise politeness exists and can operate without intervention. Trust that – despite the few who would really hog seats and never give it up – most Singaporeans really do know how to be polite, in ways even posters can never teach. If we are to be a better people, we have to first believe it’s attainable.