Buses in Singapore are fitted with small televisions, a world first. When they were first installed, commuters kicked up a fuss about how they would destroy the peace and quiet of a bus journey (as if buses were ever peaceful or quiet to begin with), and television would interfere with simple things like looking out the window. Over the past few years, people have come to accept this intrusion into their lives. Even I have somewhat overcome my aversion and initial opposition to looking at the television screen when on the buses. Some people, perhaps those who wrote angry letters of protest to the newspapers when it all began, still strenuously avoid looking at the screens, instead they stare insistently out the window, occasionally sneaking brief, furtive glances at the television. The hypnotic squares of moving colour are simply too attractive—like little children we are mesmerised by them.
Hopefully, the above is enough background for non-Singaporeans to understand the situation that I encountered one day. Comedy programmes are sometimes shown on the bus, and unsurprisingly, people laugh when they watch. What is strange is that they are almost ashamed of laughing, choosing to chuckle softly or smile to themselves, hoping that no one else in the bus can see them responding to humour. One woman I saw bucked this trend. She leaned back comfortably in the hard, durable seats, and laughed out loud. It was not a very dramatic laugh, being the plain sort of laughter one would have if one was watching the same show whilst ensconced in the comfort and privacy of one’s own home. On the bus, though, this was surely out of place. Startled commuters turned to look and to gawk. Staring at others is rude, and the unwritten code of urban conduct is that when one notices something out of place or deliberately showy, one should pretend not to see it. To do otherwise would be admitting to being an unsophisticated and nosey onlooker. However, her laughter was startling enough and anomalous enough to justify being a busybody. The rest of the bus overcame their inhibitions and looked at her laugh. Feeling the pressure of those eyes and noticing their strange looks from the periphery of her vision, she abruptly and abashedly fell quiet.
So how did mere mundane laughter, a natural response to funnybone-tickling, become anomalous? More precisely put, why is it weird to laugh on the bus? As I started thinking after she disembarked and I continued on my journey, I thought of a few plausible reasons, that overlap here and there to give a fuller explanation.
First, there were two contexts at work in the above scenario. The first was the context of the public bus ride, while the second was the context of television watching, normally conducted at home. While watching television at home, we are entitled to laugh heartily, because the home is a private setting. Among family, or while alone, we are naturally less inhibited than we would be while in the bus or on the street. In public, especially in modern urbana, we must be more reserved, behaving like strangers walking past leading parallel lives that never intersect, forever pretending not to notice each other. Therefore, behaving like the woman did, as if she was on the couch in front of the TV at home, while she was in fact on the bus, was a grievous breach of social convention.
Second, bus televisions are relatively new. People have not yet evolved the unspoken rules that govern our behavior with respect to it. I have stated above how two contexts were juxtaposed jarringly against each other, brought together because the television was transplanted from its original context in the home, to the new position mounted on the wall of a bus. We have behavioral conventions relating to how we should behave on the bus, and at home watching TV. What about TV on the bus? Do we still treat the bus seats as public property, or as our personal couches? With time, perhaps, someone will figure out what is the best compromise and propagate the new convention throughout society. In the meanwhile, commuters will have to grimly bear with the uncertainty.
Aside from the specific problem of contexts, there is finally the general problem of being conspicuous in public. The city is anonymous, so whoever stands out is strange, and draws attention to himself. Most people cannot deal with sudden public attention. We need a certain kind of courage and verve to parade about with people looking on. The Laughing Lady momentarily forgot herself and her context, and when she realised she was the centre of attention, she quickly stood down and kept quiet. The rare types who can keep their head high in the presence of onlookers, and not try to hide in shadows or stoop down, are either supremely confident of themselves, or mad.
This brings me to my last point. “Was she mad?” People who actively and willingly draw attention to themselves must surely be mad, so popular wisdom goes. Behaving out of context, like talking to oneself, openly picking one’s nose in public, is the domain of madmen. So when the other commuters gawked, perhaps they thought the woman was mad, and when she embarrassedly stopped laughing, she was perhaps trying to demonstrate that she was not mentally disturbed. That could be another shade of interpretation, to nuance the idea of behavior out of context. Which somehow brings me to another story, that of people who talk on their cellphones with tiny headsets and not their handsets, and for a while appear to be talking animatedly to themselves….
Author: Brandon Seah is a student at the Anglo-Chinese Junior College (equivalent of a senior high school) in Singapore. He likes to think he’s widely-read, but, as he tells it, he’s really just lazy. He claims his greatest accomplishment to date has been to sleep through a whole day of classes without anyone noticing.