act of kindness
A simple, quick, and frugal way to brighten your day.

Before going for retail therapy, spa therapy, or talk therapy, there may be a better and less expensive way of brightening up your day. Although free, it involves some gumption, courage, and vulnerability. It’s something that worked well for me in the States, but I wasn’t sure if it would work here in Singapore. So I wanted to test my theory and conduct a little experiment…


Some Background:

People always ask what I miss most from the US, and while “the climate”, “my car”, and “having more space” typically comes up in conversation, one thing that surprises people is when I say “the interactions”. As an Asian who grew up in a Los Angeles neighborhood, where the demographics were about 75% Hispanic, 15% Asian, and 10% “other”, I got used to a certain culture of expressions and interactions.

For instance, it was not unusual to chat with or at least know the names of your neighbors, as well as grocery clerks, postmen, and waiters. Thanking the bus captains upon alighting was the norm. Often strangers would give each other compliments.

And since many of my friends in the States are Hispanic, our typical greeting included hugs and cheek kisses, rather than handshakes and waves. These types of interactions made people feel more connected (I believe). I was curious to see how Singaporeans would react to these kinds of interactions.

Though I call it an experiment, it is not to say that my actions or behavior was insincere in any way. I am generally a very expressive person by nature. Of course, in Singapore, if I ran up to strangers to give them a hug, they might report me as a molester. So I had to take baby steps.


The Experiment

The experiment yielded many surprising results. Here are some of my favorite examples:


1. The dog-hater. I was taking my dogs out to the park and a lady (who happened to live in my block) came up to me. She started yelling at me, saying that I was irresponsible and inconsiderate for having my dogs do their business in the nearby park. She said, “Do you know that children also play here?” I said “Yes, but I always pick up after my dogs”.

She continued her rant saying that “children are more important than dogs”, and walked away before I could reply. I wanted to say, “Do you know that many other dogs, besides mine, do their business here?” Or “Does that mean the cats, birds, and rats should be banned from this area as well?”

Instead of challenging the validity of her statements, I decided a different approach (after I let my frustrations subside, of course). I knew that this person had a concern and just wanted to be heard and understood. And maybe she was also having a bad day. She looked like she was returning home from work.

I noted the exact time and location I met her. And for the next week, I tried to be in the same place with my dogs so I would run into her again. After several attempts, I finally ran into her. And with a big smile on my face, I said, “Hi, how are you?” She didn’t answer. She didn’t even look at me.

But I know I got through to her because the next few times I ran into her (giving her the same greeting), she smiled back and never again mentioned my lack of consideration or responsibility.


2. The silent bus captains. Though I take public transport daily, after a month living here, I conformed to the norm of rushing in without thanking the bus captains. But I would still try to make eye contact and smile at them upon entering the bus. About a third of them would nod and smile back, and the rest were usually not looking my way.

Out of all the times I have taken the bus over the last 3 years, there were only 3 incidences in which bus captains would actually initiate a conversation with me after my nonverbal greeting. So I thought breaking the silence (for both parties) would have to involve something a bit extraordinary. I started writing thank you notes with a piece of chocolate attached and handed these to the captains, and saying, “Thank you. This is for you”.

I did this for an entire month, and gave out 2 to 4 notes per day. Out of all the notes I gave out, about 30% thanked me back, 30% reacted in utter confusion, and less than 10% rejected the note altogether. The remaining percentage expressed little or no reaction. I suspect that those who rejected the note probably thought I was trying to sell them something. Or were a bit weary of random acts of kindness. Or just didn’t like chocolate.

thank you bus driver
A very pleasantly surprised bus captain.


The Results:

By making these small connections, I found that it made me happier and my day more joyful (and interesting). Though I cannot say for sure, it also likely made the people I connected with happier as well.

During that month, I actually started to enjoy and look forward to taking the bus, and the rides felt smoother. Similarly, because I did not succumb to my initial rage at the “dog-hater’s” remarks, I continue to look forward to taking my dog to the park rather than dreading an encounter with her.

I’ve also met some interesting people, including the security guards, migrant workers, shop owners, and cleaners, some of whom I have become good friends with. It has also forced me to go out of my comfort zone by going against the norm.

thank you
The gardener at a nearby park.

It made me confront my fear of rejection, fear of looking out of place, and fear of vulnerability (especially as a girl, since we aren’t usually the ones who have to go out on a limb and face rejection). Although I still feel the sting of rejection from time to time, my life has definitely been enriched by all these new connections.

I hope you will also be encouraged to make more connections in your life. Who knows? Just one humble greeting or simple expression of appreciation may turn into a meaningful and deep, lifelong connection.

I just read some recent studies stating that Singaporeans are among the most active on social media sites. And that the youth in particular spent much more time interacting through virtual means than face-to-face interactions.

The irony is that although social media casts a wide net to connect us with a larger number of people, many of the connections are superficial, and can’t replace face-to-face interactions.

As a result, people have become lonelier. In a 75-year longitudinal study following the lives of more than 200 Harvard students, researchers found that for a meaningful and happy life, connections are crucial. It was not money, not success, and not possessions. The author of the study said,

The more areas in your life you can make a connection, the better.

So, for a truly happy and fulfilling life, we might want to reconsider replacing the 5 C’s with just this 1 C – “Connections”. People tell me that second only to eating, Singaporeans love to complain, which unintentionally brings about negativity. Can you imagine what it would be like if instead of complaining, we complimented, commended, or connected with each other?

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