I’m at the KFC outlet nearest to home, ordering lunch for my brother. (I know, I am a wonderful sister.) I politely request for a two-piece chicken meal, for takeaway please.
“Crispy original,” says the girl at the cashier counter.
“Yes,” I say.
“No, crispy original?” says the girl. I blink, unsure of the question.
“Okay,” I say.
The girl purses her lips and releases a long, audible breath through her nostrils.
“Ma’am, would you like crispy OR original chicken?” She deliberately pauses between ‘crispy’ and ‘or’, such that the options are made painfully explicit.
“OH RIGHT original please sorry!!” Good job self, you moron.
Now, I wouldn’t call myself a fried chicken aficionado but I do know my way around the greasy battered poultry industry. KFC? Definitely not my number one choice. In fact, I haven’t ordered a meal ever since a secondary school classmate who’d worked in the kitchen part-time over the school holidays divulged many horrifying secrets about their operations (none of which we’d bothered to verify before we collectively decided to boycott the fast food chain). The menu may not have changed much in 8 years, but my memory of it has long been eroded, along with the conventions of placing an order. So you’ll have to forgive me for failing to comprehend the truncated script. Yet I still feel incredibly stupid, and the cashier of course does nothing to alleviate this emotion, sighing again as she keys in my order.
There is such deep shame associated with not knowing what to do or say in a situation that is governed by strict but unspoken rules of behaviour. A Singaporean used to standing on the left instead of the right side of the escalator may invite many disapproving glances from Hong Kong pedestrians before they discover to their utmost horror that they’ve been obstructing foot traffic.
That said, we cannot deny that delicious schadenfreude that comes with witnessing others’ infractions of the social convention; their mistakes are an affirmation of our own superior cultural competence.
Take, for example, the way my BFF mentally tortured the unfortunate young man who was serving us at Starbucks. The BFF had been jet-lagged and was looking to get an extra dose of caffeine. So instead of ordering a normal cuppa, he asked for a “red eye”. Right away, we could tell that the poor kid taking the drink order had no idea what that meant. The panicked expression on his face was most pitiable, but as ex-baristas ourselves, we hadn’t an ounce of sympathy to offer him. Don’t know what that is? That’s just unbecoming of someone whose damn job is to make coffee. We silently passed our judgement, watched him squirm for a bit, twisting about awkwardly in the narrow space behind the counter in the hopes of another employee detecting his distress, before his manager finally came to his rescue with a few taps on the POS system and a look of annoyance. Minutes later, we would bask in the glow of our coffee knowledge supremacy while the BFF drank his cup of brewed coffee with an extra espresso shot in slow, smug sips.
Asshole tendencies aside, we are also motivated to correct erroneous behaviour even if it bears no consequence on us, because this reinforces our identities as members of the social group that values these practices. In his paper on social comparison processes, psychologist Leon Festinger notes that:
“The existence of a discrepancy in a group with respect to opinions or abilities will lead to action on part of members of that group to reduce the discrepancy.”
Deviant behaviour is a threat to the norm. It has the power to undermine all the social forces that keep conventions in place if enough people choose not to succumb. Yesterday, to enforce convention, an elderly driver of bus 103 had to raise his voice at me for not extending my arm to flag the bus down, even though I had moved into the appropriate position to board the bus, even though we had locked eyes, even though he had already signalled to turn into the bus bay. I had to be humiliated in front of the entire load of passengers in order for me to fully experience the ramifications of my misdemeanour.
It is the specificity of the gesture that perplexes me. If the objective is to get the attention of the bus driver, then I succeeded in every aspect. But the punitive action I received was not doled out on the grounds of some purposive interpretation, but rather was in direct response to my non-normative means to that end.
When public buses were first introduced in Singapore, instructions to “flag bus in advance” were printed on the back of bus tickets. Absent was the method by which you were supposed to do so. Am I the only idiot who interprets the term “flag” as “any form of signalling to attract attention” and not “flailing arm frantically”? Or maybe this was just an informal lesson that every one who has ever taken a public bus goes through at some point to help them acculturate properly, and my lesson just came very late. Maybe the earliest transport operators in Singapore commissioned an angry uncle on every bus to yell at every single commuter who wasn’t waving at the bus as part of some mass public education campaign.
You can never be too prepared in life. There are plenty of situations in which you will find yourself the biggest idiot in the room, whether it’s eating at a vegan restaurant (“what the heck is farro??”) or playing your first ever game of laser tag in a pitch-black maze you’ve no idea how to navigate (and subsequently losing epicly to a group of boys who are at least 10 years younger than you). The swell and ebb of normative social influence that dictates all our interactions in a given community necessitates that all of us look stupid once in a while. I guess we all deserve to be schooled on how to function like an acceptable human beings once in a while, if only to keep us from being pricks to the staff at Starbucks.