Along came balloons

A short distance from our lunch table, a publicity event was going on. There was a stand with posters and several volunteers handing out flyers. Not many passers-by showed interest, but if a family had a toddler in tow, they would be compelled to stop, for one volunteer was holding a bunch of balloons and the kid would invariably want one, two or better yet, three.

What is it about balloons that small children find irresistible? I figured it was gravity.

They’ve only recently discovered gravity’s effects. You let go of something and it falls to the ground. You hold a soft toy by one end (e.g. a hind leg) and the rest of it flops downwards. Balloons defy gravity; they are interesting for that. Moreover, they are often brightly coloured and move in erratic ways, precisely the properties that attract the visual attention of homo sapiens, we being hard-wired to pay attention to such characteristics.

All our lives, learning takes this form. We first discover the default mode and then we learn about exceptions. More importantly, our natural curiosity (albeit a trait that is sorely missing in some of us) leads us to find out why the default works the way it does and why exceptions behave differently. That way, we get better at anticipating whether to expect default behaviour or exceptional behaviour in any given situation. When we get off a sofa, we expect the sofa to stay still. When we get off a swing, we don’t expect the seat to do the same. When we see a masculine-looking person, we expect a low voice, but we also know that there is a fine tradition of counter tenors:

(Actually, there is one more thing exceptional about the above — the excellent playing from the french horn, a very difficult instrument)

If we didn’t know about counter tenors, we might say David D Q Lee (above) was really a woman dressed in men’s clothes, an opinion that would only demonstrate our ignorance.

* * * * *

Pattern recognition of weather and knowing there was no reason to expect departure from pattern meant that many who went to SlutWalk yesterday were armed with umbrellas. One said she chose to wear her Crocs because she was expecting a muddy field and Crocs were washable.

Although there were a couple of hundred present, I wondered how many gave it a miss because of the expected rain. Nevertheless, the turnout was still several multiples of the 50 (according to the Straits Times) that showed up when the youth wing of the People’s Action Party held their rally recently over public transport concessions for tertiary students.

Here’s a photo of me and a friend from Indonesia on the SlutWalk field before the rain came.

* * * * *

Failure to know of or understand exceptions is a failure of learning. An hour before going to Hong Lim Park for SlutWalk, another friend was relating an incident she encountered at a conference abroad. There, she met a delegation from Brunei representing a national women’s association or something like that. My friend explained to them that she was lesbian.

The Bruneians said, “Oh, so you’re a man.”

“No, I am a woman. I’m a woman who happens to love another woman.”

Bruneians: “Right, so that means you’re a man.”

My Indonesian friend was not surprised. “Educational standards are very low in Brunei,” he said. “They are not well exposed to the world either.”

* * * * *

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have expectations. In fact, we would be operating sub-optimally if we weren’t guided by it, e.g. going to SlutWalk unprepared for rain. The trick is to know what to expect.

This is especially important when we’re using a tool to do something for us. How would we know when the tool is working properly and when it is not? We need to know what result or output to expect; the moment the result comes out differently, we need to probe.

After SlutWalk, I was at a foodcourt queuing up at the drinks counter for a canned drink. Two persons ahead of me, the system broke down. I witnessed every step of the unfolding problem, which might well be, sadly, an everyday occurrence. The root causes were poor work discipline and poor speaking skills, but instead of catching the error quickly by spotting a mismatch between the cash register’s figure and the expected charge, the dispute lasted an incredible ten minutes, holding up an ever-lengthening queue.

The customer had on her tray three cans of Coca-cola and a mug of hot milk tea. The server (let’s call her “auntie” as most Singaporeans would) rung up $7.30 on her cash register. The customer handed over a ten-dollar note and received $2.70 in change, which she continued to hold in the palm of her hand.

In the next five seconds, a 13-year-old boy came back to the counter — he had been the customer before the woman with the tray — asking to change the drink he had bought earlier for his younger brother, which resulted in auntie having to key something else into her cash register. The boy cut the queue but nobody minded since it looked like a simple substitution.

Within those five seconds, the woman customer had time to think about what she had been charged and suspected that the amount of $7.30 was wrong.

“How much is a can of Coke?” she asked auntie.


“And the tea?”


“So how can it be $7.30?” the woman asked. “You charged me $7.30.”

Auntie was momentarily confused. It didn’t seem as if she even remembered the figure of $7.30, after having been interrupted by the boy.

Thinking that auntie did not even agree to the fact that she had charged her $7.30 in the first instance, the customer tried to prove that she had. “You see here, you only gave me $2.70 in change,” showing the amount she held in her hand. “I gave you a ten-dollar note and you gave me $2.70 in change.”

That took the conversation down the wrong track.

“Right, what,” auntie said. “$7.30, then change $2.70, what.”

“But it should not be $7.30,” said the customer. “It should be $5.80. Three cans of Coke and one cup of tea.”

Auntie rummaged through her paper printouts, found the right one and pointed to it. “Right, what. Here say $7.30.”

Amazingly, it continued like that for minutes, back and forth. I intervened, explaining to auntie that the issue was not whether the customer had been given the correct change, the issue was that the amount charged was in error. Still, she didn’t get it, and kept insisting that the customer was wrong.

(In the midst of all that stress, the 13-year-old came back to change his drink yet again. I would have strangled him if not for potential witnesses around.)

What went wrong? It was obvious. The server had scanned or keyed in four cans of Coke x $1.50, plus one mug of tea x $1.30. But more crucially, she did not have the numeracy skills to estimate that the items on the customer’s tray and visible to everybody including herself could not possibly have added up to $7.30. She used a tool (the cash register) and relied on the tool’s output (a figure of $7.30) with no idea what the expected output should be.

In the absence of her own thinking skills, she merely relied on authority — the cash register.  It is depressingly common behaviour.

* * * * *

Authority takes many forms. The cash register is one, religious scripture is another. People take wholesale what is said in ancient texts without questioning what inputs had gone into those texts, and thus how better to assay the resulting lines we see today.

More insidiously, we fall back all too often on social conditioning. And then, when asked to justify our opinion or behaviour, we look around and say “but that’s how it is.” And so women are judged by appearances in ways that aren’t applied to men, and few stop to consider why we think like this. Where did we get this default mode of thinking? What’s wrong with it?

13 Responses to “Along came balloons”

  1. 1 reservist_cpl 5 December 2011 at 15:10

    “No, I am a woman. I’m a woman who happens to love another woman.”

    Bruneians: “Right, so that means you’re a man.”

    You think the Bruneian’s are wrong…not because of what your default mode of thinking is?

    Would you be offended if they considered you a woman? Why should you?

    • 2 yawningbread 6 December 2011 at 00:32

      The logic you are applying is ridiculous. You are substituting a correlational association for substantive definition. It’s like saying because Tan Ah Kow speaks English, he is therefore Anglo-saxon, regardless of the fact that Tan Ah Kow looks Chinese, with several generations of ancestors from Fujian province. You confuse an association (most Anglo-saxons speak English) with the definition of what an Anglo-saxon is.

      Another example, This dog Bertie has only two legs. Birds have two legs whereas dogs have four. Therefore Bertie is a bird.

      • 3 yuen 6 December 2011 at 02:59

        >Bruneians: “Right, so that means you’re a man.”

        >My Indonesian friend was not surprised. “Educational >standards are very low in Brunei,” he said. “They are not well >exposed to the world either.”

        your Indonesian friend could have misjudged the Bruneians that your Lesbian friend spoke to: they might be deliberately mocking her, not merely speaking out of ignorance

  2. 4 Former Civil Servant 5 December 2011 at 20:09


    I was in the civil service. That’s how the system works.
    Really sad. Doesn’t help that our media continues to play up the myth that our civil service is top-notch.

    • 5 Gintai_昇泰 15 December 2011 at 13:53

      I was a police officer for 12 yrs! I was an investigator for nearl 4 yrs! It is even worst there. I plan to blog on this but hope they wont tekken me under OSA! Look out for this blog I planning! Langgar!

  3. 6 Gintai_昇泰 5 December 2011 at 21:02

    You compare the cash register with “authority” and elaborated on social conditioning and default mode of human behaviour. Very interesting indeed. About that drinks auntie, there are many amongst us. You may wish to read

  4. 7 Saycheese 5 December 2011 at 22:50

    Failure to know of or understand exceptions is a failure of learning.

  5. 8 ape 6 December 2011 at 00:48

    When exceptions do occur in civil service, they are more in the line of ‘because the boss says so’ instead of thoughtful reasoning.

  6. 9 Cher Yiing 6 December 2011 at 09:46

    Humans are conditioned to rely on reflex and in-built rules. This was the basis of survival during our evolution – if we stopped to think, we would’ve been killed by that sabre-tooth tiger already. The brain is an evolved organism and naturally will rely on reflex. Social conditioning and rules are simply the memetic extension of this.

    Only if we learn to step beyond this can humanity ever hope to survive (can we? not sure, but one can hope). Unfortunately, the vast majority of humanity still cannot do that – they will always fall back on ‘rules’ without thought.

    As R. Scott Bakker has titled his first book, we live without understanding “The Darkness That Comes Before”

  7. 10 Anonymous 7 December 2011 at 22:34

    Re: Bruneians: “Right, so that means you’re a man.”
    My Indonesian friend was not surprised. “Educational standards are very low in Brunei,” he said. “They are not well exposed to the world either.” — FYI, some or shall I say many Singaporean friends also do not grasp the idea of a woman loving another woman or a man loving another man. They always think there must be one + and the other –

  8. 11 R 8 December 2011 at 15:20

    This isn’t limited to Singapore, unfortunately. I recently moved to escape the country, and this type of behaviour (deferring to what is percieved as ‘authority’) happens everywhere. (it happens in London, happens in Australia and happens in New York too)

    I think that what makes a person think critically as opposed to falling to social conditioning isn’t so much having an individual spirit or being ‘unique’/’creative’/*insert popular buzzword* but rather an ability to be mentally agile and flexible in holding several contradictory narratives at once. Interestingly enough, it’s a skill that both practicing artists and business folk – especially those dealing with speculative investments – share.

    Why do so many Singaporeans have such a lack of this skill? My guess is this – most people weren’t allowed to have a normal adolescence to rebelling, learning, rebelling again and finally accepting due to enormous pressure to compete in the study race. As such, they missed this major development of self, they never learned how to question authority and think critically which means a whole lot of them are still stuck at that stage of accepting authority from a ‘parental’ figure.

  9. 12 SC 14 December 2011 at 16:09

    This is an interesting read, stringing multiple events to convey a thought on human behavior – an common yet unconscious habit.

    I came up with a principle earlier from my observations on people daily, and I thought to share. I called it – Common Behavior Exemption.

    It means that so long every one is doing or practicing the same thing, one cannot be at fault even if their action may not be ‘right’. And in our society, being right or wrong matters a lot thus people will tend to follow what is socially accepted as ‘right’.

    I know this principle may not be directly applicable to your Auntie example (that struck me to comment), but the side-effect or by-result of this principle matches that of what you have brought up -people are not thinking for themselves.

    They take formal education, authority, tradition, media as the source of everything on how things should be. And when things are not taught in the former mentioned avenues, they rely on cultures (i.e. work, nation, etc) and social practices as means to do the ‘right’ things . As doing so means they will not be alone, they easily fall in a comfort zone where thinking for themselves is not really required (or rather they are not aware that they are not really thinking).

    Given that, unconsciously people will follow or adopt existing knowledge, seldom will they question the norm and formulate their own opinions or analysis on certain/all areas of their life. That is why often do we hear “but everyone is doing the same what”, “I don’t really know”, “think so much for what”, “this is too cheem for me”.

    This is not to say that people are bad for not thinking for themselves as everyone is free to choose how they would like to spend their lives. It’s just a mere observation and thoughts of mine. Just to share 🙂

    (btw, I came up with this principle with a slight name change from a law that was passed in the States that favors the unethical practices of the factory farms)

  10. 13 WinkingDoll 15 December 2011 at 19:48

    About the auntie, I am guessing that she charged an extra can of Coke which would explain the difference of $1.50. My guess is that the customer would have better luck just telling the auntie, “Auntie, 你多算了我一罐Coke.” [literary, “Auntie, you’ve over-counted my cans of Coke by 1.”] and pointing to the evidence of only 3 cans of Coke served.

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