Yayyyy I’m really in a good mood to write about this for two reasons
- I spent most of my July with many different people, perhaps even more than I had in the past 6 months. Despite their uniqueness, all of them share one thing in common: They made me really happy
- I just found out that two of my friends whom I like very much had been a couple. I’m really happy for them and want to see more of that happening!
One of my favorite metaphors is that life is a journey, and in every good journey the protagonist will always find good companions. I’ve seen friends who hardly see each other and yet still remain enviably close, and I want to know how they maintain such relationships. Plus, sometimes I want to let some people know that I really like them but I’m too shy to show it. I need to ensure the way I express my affinity rings true to them.
Can I just eat ice-cream and not bother about all these?
Yes. However, ice-cream is nice in a different way from having enduring relationships. A durian ice cream cone is really fantastic but give me 100 cones to consume and I swear I’ll vomit. (More is not necessarily better – Law of Diminishing Utility – Econs 101). In contrast, no one would say “I’m having enough love with other people”. No man is an island, and indeed one of the necessary conditions for human flourishing is to have good relationship with others. As such, have ice cream with your beloved ones (beware of the durian flavor though).
Anyway, just wanna share what my host mother in Singapore, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, told me: the five universal languages of love. It’s from a book but I never read it. Without further ado, here they are:
1. Words: these words of affirmation, encouragement or appreciation can take on many forms. They can be told directly, recorded or written.
Because it’s the easiest way to instill trust, which motivates most people more than anything else, because it affects a person’s internal drive – the sense of self-worth.
I try to keep all the notes and thank-you cards from my friends and read them again whenever I’m bored. Usually there are mostly positive stuff, so much that I even write on some of those “Omg can’t believe that was me”. It’s easy to feel cynical. Perhaps my friends just want to write good things about me so that I won’t feel bad; perhaps I’m not that good. But why should that matter? I know I’m flawed, but these words represent an ideal version of me that’s worth striving for. I still keep a note for myself: “I’m really lucky because too many people believe in me that I too have to believe in myself”.
I wish I had started this blog sooner. I had too much analysis-paralysis (aka thinking too much that I stop doing): What should I focus on? What values am I offering readers? What if no one cares? That sort of thing. Upon retrospect, what keeps me going is simply a few supportive comments from my friends. Thinking that I’m writing for strangers is scary; in contrast, thinking that I’m writing for my friends is immensely encouraging. Thus, as long as you feel genuine, don’t be afraid to express your appreciation to others. I thank you in advance, and so does the world.
2. Touch: Hugging, kissing, handshaking or (bros warning) checking out biceps. A pat in the back, a light tap on someone’s shoulder, mother caressing her newborn baby -all these physical act feel wonderful to us because our body and mind are intricately connected. For instance, when a mother first breastfeed her child, her brain is flushed with oxytocin, a hormone that explains the wondrous feeling of maternal love. Many mothers report that they feel their whole purpose of life is right there in the little soul they are holding on their arms.
This seems to be the most primitive form of love and care because many primates and other mammals do it too. I guess what makes this language of love special is that the person who touches viscerally feel the other’s reaction. It indeed unifies the giver and the receiver, and at that moment we just feel very connected.
3. Gifts: is something concrete in the sense that it can be either physically enjoyed or used (like a book or a trip to Europe for your birthday).
Because gift is often practical, and c’mon who doesn’t like something useful? Even when it’s not, like a memento, its concreteness sticks in our mind and thus has strong emotional value.
On another note, since gift is often concrete, it is easier to compare, and as we all know, comparison gives rise to judgment and expectation. You already gave me a chocolate bar the last time so I expect something more this time (like a chocolate cake). This phenomenon does happen for gift, although I see it more often with rewards; for instance, children want more when parents first reward their good grades.
I used to think that people who prefer gifts are more materialistic, but recently I realized that they might just be used to the act of receiving and giving gifts because of their backgrounds or cultures. Plus, although it’s nice to receive a gift with practical value, most of us do appreciate effort and thoughts behind it.
4. Quality time: It’s time spent interacting and/or doing something together that is enjoyed by all parties involved. For example, talking to my mom at dinner or playing Counter Strike with my friends both count as quality time for me.
What makes quality time?
Good indicators of “quality” include 1) how much we forget the sense of time while at it 2) how much you want these good times again and 3) how much closer you feel to others after it.
Quality time may seem to be more of a background factor in the sense that it’s not immediately noticeable like words, touch or gift. However, everything needs time to grow, and love is no exception. For my beloved grandmom, and I guess it’s the same for many others, no words of affirmation, touch or gifts needed, just time spent together over a family meal. It’s truly amazing how human bonding is vastly strengthened just from looking, talking and listening to each other.
5. Act of service:
Mom always tells me that nothing makes her more treasured than seeing a friend helping her with some work. For me it’s the best gift: that person cares about me so much that he or she is willing to spend time and effort to not just understand but even do something for my needs.
What is service is an entire topic in itself that I have yet to found satisfying answer, so I will leave this topic for discussion another day. For now, there’s one thing I’m sure of: it’s the best way to give back to those I love. It’s also where I encounter the most wonderful paradox of life: the more I give, the more I have.
Something to share from a commencement speech by George Saunders:
“as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be”
(Am I getting older? Sure, but still young)
Update 13th Aug: Different people value time differently. Just a few days ago I felt really bad seeing my aunt spending so much time preparing for my farewell dinner with my friends. However, she even seemed to be annoyed when I kept asking her to let me do the work. I’ve seen this reaction many times, yet it’s still fascinating to a selfish person like I am now.
I realized that some people take pride in serving the ones they love. We young people often joke about how two good friends end up fighting each other for the right to pay for the meal (not sure if it’s a Vietnamese joke). Yet, it’s exactly the case for many from older generation! I guess my aunt derives satisfaction and strengthens her sense of self-worth from helping those she cares about. Unsurprisingly she seemed offended: she has always been so helpful, yet I was not letting her be so! It’s a lesson on empathy again: I felt bad because I thought she was thinking like me. I didn’t understand enough the drive behind her act of service. Older people are indeed more selfless.
Some end notes
- There’s always certain reservation when we express our affection using the language that we are not used to. However, there’s a good news. Like everything in life, this too can be learnt. A personal anecdote: I’m shy with touching others (I guess it’s more common for Asian and boys?) but after some experiences I now happily admit that the physical sensation of human warmth has become intuitively appealing. One particular experience was a touch appreciation activity where we take turn to sit down, close our eyes and feel the touch of others in whatever form – hugging, cuddling or even poking. People got really creative for this activity. Moral of the story? Just do it. The worst thing that can happen is some awkward moments, which are always very memorable upon retrospection ^^
- Quality matters. Elderly people have fewer friends but each relationship they have is extremely meaningful and empowering to them, because over the course of a lifetime those remaining relationships have endured and fostered through a great deal of challenges. Good friendships take time to build. This should help us empathize with why some people seem to be reserved in making new friends or getting involved in a relationship: why waste time with newly formed, superficial ones that can fade at anytime when they can spend time deepening existing relationships?
- The giver too wants to be appreciated. Saying “You are welcome/ Nah it doesn’t matter” is one thing, feeling good when our friends are happy because of our expression of love is another thing. Don’t waste the chance to show our dear caring friends that we are thankful.
So, what to do to express your love to a special one? Think of a gift, write a card, give a big hug, cook and enjoy a meal together and clean up the dishes afterwards for him/her. I’m only half joking.