I knew it! *smashes nearest inanimate object*

(tl;dr – Don’t bottle up your emotions!)

Something had been puzzling me ever since I left Scotland, land of rampant alcoholism and sectarian football violence, for the sunnier climes of Thailand over two years ago. During the course of my pre-travel research I stumbled across a large number of news articles detailing acts of extreme violence occurring in my destination country. The one which stuck in my mind was a gentleman in a country town sauntering from his house into a neighbouring karaoke establishment and proceeding to gun down the clientele in punishment for the heinous crime of singing George Jones songs with a little too much gusto. How could this be squared with Thailand’s reputation as a peaceful country, a haven of Buddhism known as the Land Of Smiles?

In the months after my arrival the mystery deepened further. Politeness and social niceties are taken to great extremes in ol’ Siam. The entire social fabric of the country, as with much of Asia, revolves around the concept of ‘saving face’, something quite alien in its importance to most westerners. The rules regarding ‘face’ are very strictly laid down and one of the most important precepts is that you must never, under any circumstances, lose your cool during a disagreement. No wild gesticulations, no shouting and certainly no violence. Someone just raped your cat? Just calmly and with a polite smile explain to them that you’d really rather they didn’t do it again. Seriously.

This seems to make sense on the surface. In an area of the world with typically high population densities it would appear to be a good idea to minimise conflict and encourage harmonious living. But the philosopher and armchair psychologist/biologist in me is never satisfied with simple solutions. We’ve been evolving into our current physical and psychological form for millions of years and there are precious few parts of us which don’t serve (or used to serve) some important purpose. When we feel we have been wronged our natural reaction is to feel anger, resentment or something similar. Our ancestors felt this way too and figured out how to deal with it, passing on the relevant mental equipment to us in the form of genetic predispositions towards certain courses of action in certain situations. Just as it’s pretty foolish to ignore pangs of hunger instead of eating, wouldn’t we be ill-advised to simply ignore the bubbling negative emotions and bottle them deep down?

This was my tentative answer to the mindless violence issue. Surely a society which encourages its members to basically pretend conflict doesn’t exist is not only leaving its population without the training to resolve unavoidable conflicts, they are doing so in direct opposition to countless millenia of evolved responses. The upshot? Minor incidents which would warrant at most some raised voices in the west, such as excessively loud country music, rapidly escalate to gunplay and deaths. That was my hypothesis anyway, one I would ramble about after too many Hong Thongs but never bothered to investigate further.

Thankfully there are scientists to do the work for me…

Some enterprising group of American researchers subjected volunteers to disgusting scenes from two movies, instructing one group to react normally but the other to strictly control their emotional responses. Following the screening they were invited to play a (fake) online game, supposedly involving the subjection of other players to varying levels of discomfort. Can you guess what happened? Yup, the group who had been restricted from venting their emotions appropriately were more aggressive in the game by a significant margin.

It’s like we’ve always been told in the west – don’t keep your emotions bottled up inside, all that can happen is that they’ll ferment and get stronger and stronger until… BOOM! I’ve yet to investigate in more detail here in Taiwan but anecdotally at least it seems to be the same situation: keep your cool at all costs, ignoring your natural urge to express emotion. And yes, there are accompanying tales of violent crime which would seem out of place in the UK or US, places which would normally be regarded as more violent.

Yes, the west probably is more violent in terms of the number of ‘violent’ incidents per head of population compared to Asia but it’s the kind of violence which makes an important difference. We’re trained from a young age to resolve conflicts without resolving to extreme violence, the kind which would jeopardise our future reproductive success. We shout, we flail our arms, we smash inanimate objects and occasionally we even come to blows – but there it ends, except in exceedingly rare circumstances. We know how to avoid the escalation of violence because society has embraced and controlled our evolved instincts rather than trying to brush them under the carpet.

That’s my two cents anyway. I’m off to swear at people and break stuff.

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