As we motored along the Sirat Expressway from the Airport to the city, the smiling Taxi driver asked me where I was from. Given my inability to speak Thai, the conversation haltingly progressed from basic introductions to the relative merits of our respective nations, and in response to my apparent lack of ardor for my motherland the driver proffered a universal tenet that I would later come to see emblazoned on t-shirts for sale in the heart of the tourist district – “Same Same But Different”. When I returned home, not to the UK but to my adopted Long Stay in Taiwan some two thousand five hundred kilometres to the east, I mused on this pearl of cosmopolitan wisdom . It pointed to a conclusion that whilst each place around the world looked, smelled, and tasted differently, the consistent between them was people; or rather, a basic set of physical, psychological, and emotional drives that grease the wheels of humanity. Places change , but people and their need for security, shelter, partnership, occupation, sustenance, leisure, and hope all work from a roughly similar template. We are all same same but a little different.
Living as a long term expatriate can have amazing rewards, but for those of us who relocated in adulthood, it is often the case that no matter how well we are adapted to culture shock and local mores, there is usually at least one persistent irritant with The Way Things Are Done Here that is almost impossible to shake. Maybe these irritants are a way for the brain to maintain a psychological link with Back Home, a subtle reminder that You Don’t Really Belong Here. Or it could just be a manifestation of an obsessive compulsive mind struggling with the perpetual white noise of living and working in a different country and culture. Whatever the origin, it appears you don’t really choose the persistent irritant that never fails to get under your skin, it emerges gradually in direct response to a pattern of behaviour that you identify, rightly or wrongly, as a uniquely local attribute. Although I often internally rage, on a daily basis, about the blithe indifference of Taiwanese to their own perfectly logical traffic management rules, I find myself adapting to the local style approach of Convenience First too often to not be able to relate to why a person might drive or walk in a manner that is borderline passive aggressive towards everyone else around them. The traffic, though annoying, is not what triggers me. No, my bug bear is the close door button in lifts. Let me explain.
I work in the Neihu Science Park in Taipei. The building houses some thirty odd other companies spread over ten floors. In their infinite wisdom, the building managers decided that to maintain security and stop random visitors wandering around, the stairs were for emergency purposes only. So, they blocked access to the stairs at the first floor. Thus, everyone is forced to use the lifts to get to work, get lunch, pop outside for the smoke break, and to leave at the end of the day. The ubiquity of lifts in Taiwan stands in contrast to my past experience of the UK, where clustered skyscrapers and apartment blocks were not a common feature, and especially rare outside of cities. In the U.K., many lifts came with an open door button only; the close function runs on a timer and a weight sensor that would keep the doors open if it felt a sudden change in the mass contained within. My recent journey to Germany revealed a similar design. A perfectly normal lift, with no close door button.
In Taiwan, every lift has a close door button. The lift doors in our building is programed to close automatically some three seconds after the weight sensors determine the cargo is secure. Despite this static engineered constant, there is a mean average of a 0.372 second interval before someone uses the close door button after entering the lift. I know this because I have conducted an extensive participant observer non-blind longitudinal analysis involving thousands of test subjects over a period of four years, where the control is my never abating mild irritation. Furthermore, the lift buttons are on the right hand side (facing the door/exit). This has induced an evolved physical tick in building employees – upon entering the lift they immediately swivel to their left and press the close lift door button, usually before swiping the card on the sensor that allows them to select their floor. This often leads to semi-farcical scenes in which a Gordian Knot of arms and fingers become briefly and intimately entwined like an octopus trying to swipe a card, push five different floor buttons, and the close door button all at the same time. Some 95.3% of test subjects, having ascertained that they are the last to step into the lift, press the close door button regardless of who else might be heading towards the open lift door with the clear intention of also boarding. These Button Pushers can further be taxonified into distinct species.
There are the Button Botherers who apparently feel that pushing the button three to five times in rapid succession will somehow result in the doors closing ever faster. The Control Freaks like to manage both open and close door buttons for the benefit for everyone else, often resulting in various ingoing and outgoing body parts being briefly jammed in between the doors. The sheepish grinned apology that usually follows appears to be quietly tolerated in the name of Avoiding Confrontation. Deliverers are nurtured to press the close door button right before selecting their floor regardless of how physically challenging this might be when carrying an armful of packages. One hopes that the fact that they’ve left their diesel truck engines running outside to helpfully contribute to global warming perhaps underscores their impatience. Absent Minders fail to completely depress the button and are encouraged by brief glances of consternation from other riders to complete the process properly. Most of these sub-species are also Lookers whose job is to nervously eye the buttons at each floor stop to determine whose responsibility it will be to step across and close the door or face the eternal purgatory of looking helplessly out onto that particular floor’s activities and personnel for the Chinese water torture period of more than two seconds. My favourite though, are the Redundant Pushers whose reflex tick is so ingrained and strong that the muscle memory forces them to push the close door button when the door is either already closing or almost closed. Almost all of these genus of Button Pushers share one thing in common. The haste with which they need to get the show on the road after entering the lift is diametrically opposite to the sloth like manner in which they walk after exiting said conveyance. The logic is simple and devastating – convenience is obtained when you can control the speed of a thing. There’s an electronic switch that allows you to close the lift doors before they are timed to close automatically but there’s no button that will increase the speed at which you can walk.
My research has further revealed that subtly obstructing the buttons to prevent access to the close door feature causes a number of different reactions ranging from borderline aggression to philosophical resignation. It is apparently fairly normal to happily watch someone walking towards the lift with the intention of getting on and not make any attempt to keep the doors open for them. Many a time I’ve seen that contented grin, entirely without malice, through doors closing inevitably in my face. The open door button exists according to a separate strata of unspoken rules – it is usually engaged and firmly held down when groups exit the lift, in the apparent fear that the doors will suddenly snap shut and decapitate straggling and lower ranking members of an entourage. All of these phenomenon occur regardless of the design, function, and features of the lift itself, or how long a person has been using them. The one single overpowering conclusion from my study is that trying to explain why I feel the close door button is both unnecessary and often a source of inconvenience for other people would be an exercise in futility. The incomprehension of my colleague on seeing only a door open button in the lift when we travelled to Germany might reflect the uniquely Taiwanese culture of Convenience. Why wait for something when you can have it sooner rather than later? After all, seconds count. Arguing that there’s no harm in waiting, or that your convenience often comes at the cost of someone else’s, would be like trying to convince iron age societies that perhaps we should rethink bronze.
At the end of the day, arguing the toss about the lift door button in the short time before exiting at my floor would also be passive aggressive, deeply confrontational, and not at all conducive to maintaining the good reputation and guanxi of my company with the building administrators. Instead, I have developed my own counter-strategy that allows me to manage my irritation and thereby avoid escalation to the point where other people might feel the need to manage their fist towards my face. When I am the last to enter the lift, I add an extra second or so to the process of swiping my card before selecting my floor, by which time the doors have already started to close. Sometimes, this forces a small amount of cognitive dissonance on any Redundant Pushers selecting their floor after me. I watch as their muscles want to complete the flow, but their brains paused because Something’s Not Quite Right. At those moments I often feel a small measure of satisfaction akin to what I imagine must be like successfully deprogramming the victim of a cult’s indoctrination. I have briefly interrupted the mindlessness of a person going through life on automatic control. It is perhaps fantastically megalomaniacal and petty of me but it does I think sooth some part of me that fears, as per Radiohead’s grim warning, that I am a pig, stuck in a cage, on antibiotics, pushing a series of pointless buttons towards a pointless end. I am after all just a person, flaws and all, like everyone else. Same same, but different.