By Steve Fisher If intelligent beings on other worlds are listening in on our communication here on planet Earth (and I’m not convinced they care), they’ve probably noticed that we like to express our affection in prepackaged form. Emoji and stickers in messaging apps, “Likes” (and now “Loves” etc.) on Facebook, electronic or even old school paper greeting cards with that perfect message, flowers delivered to someone anywhere in the world with a few taps on your phone and fixed expressions like “I love you” or “I miss you” in our verbal communication. Love and affection may be the most important human emotions but we seem to like our options for expression conveniently packed and prepared for us. As a proud citizen of global postmodern society, I love these tools as much as anyone, especially the adorable and highly creative stickers they have in Viber, Line and the other messaging apps popular in Asia, where I’ve spent most of the last two years, first in Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand, then in Bangkok and now in Saigon.
The other day though I had an unexpected and somewhat exotic encounter with real affection that really got me thinking. One of the many joys of life in Vietnam is the fabulous street food they have here. In Saigon, during most hours of the day or night, you would struggle to walk 50 m without encountering something that’s both delicious and cheap. Happily, my crazy love for Vietnamese food is matched by a hyperactive personality and a high metabolism. I struggle to put on weight even though I frequently succumb to the endless temptations.
A few nights ago when I walked past my favorite nearby sidewalk Vietnamese noodle cart I decided to get some for takeaway, to eat later that night. (At even the cheapest places they separate the noodles, broth, vegetables etc. for you so your noodles are still fresh and tasty a few hours later.) Remembering that I was meeting a lady friend later on, I got a second order for her. We hadn’t discussed dinner plans at all and I didn’t even know if we’d meet before or after she’d eaten. If she’d already had dinner she could have them as a late night snack or for breakfast the next morning (breakfast food isn’t all that different from lunch or dinner food here). Even if she hated this type noodles – a serious character flaw as they are absolutely fabulous! – I could eat the second batch the next day. My dork brain quickly cycled through the permutations and concluded that whatever her and my own dining choices over the next few hours, picking up some noodles for her had zero chance of ruining the relationship and might even be nice!
In the end, she had to work late and had dinner at work, and we met up much later than originally planned. But when I shared the noodles I picked up it was remarkable how happy she was with this gesture, which must be noted was not particularly grand. While Vietnamese noodles are without a doubt one of the great joys of life on this planet, a huge bowl costs about $2. After remembering my plans for the evening, I just got two batches instead of one. No big deal at all. My ranking in the Man of the Year contest is probably as low as it was before. But my friend was really, really happy with this gesture, and in the time that’s passed since then she returned that affection many times over. Cool your jets, single ladies, I’m taken.
I have a tendency to geek out about life in our crazy, cool contemporary world, and it’s quite possible that of the 7 billion people on this planet, no one else thinks about these things. But the surprising joy generated by this simple gesture really got me thinking – if real expressions of affection are so highly valued, why are they relatively rare? Why do we usually choose the prepackaged variety? Ease and convenience, I think, are a big part of the answer – it’s just so much easier to tap out a sweet text and select a cute sticker than it is to make even the smallest unique real world gesture of affection. Beyond that, I think that truly creative expression is relatively rare. We go with pre-made options partly because it’s actually relatively difficult and rare to come up with something new and unique.
The way we exchange these prepackaged emotions is a bit like how we snack on whatever’s nearby, without thinking about it – it’s pleasurable, convenient and often of questionable nutritional value. A home-cooked meal would be so much more rewarding and healthy but that’s really hard, and I say this as someone who loves to cook. All this is quite understandable and I rely on these readymade expressions of emotion as much as anyone.
But my casual and unexpected encounter with real affection and the outsize positive reaction really got me thinking. What if we tried this more often? Instead of relying on the sticker or the flowers or the fixed expression we’ve heard others say 1000s of times, what if we tried doing something nice for our partner or a close friend? An actual gesture of kindness in the real world. A bit more often than we do. I don’t want to be too radical here. I won’t be deleting any of my six messaging apps (one for Vietnam, one for Thailand and Japan, another popular in Europe and the US etc.) or avoiding Facebook. I got no problem with flowers either. And maybe everyone but me is already showering their friends and significant others with imaginative acts of kindness. For me though this experience was quite eye-opening, and I’ll definitely be trying it again soon.