I was visiting my favourite English classes a few days ago and one of the teachers was encouraging his students to ask me questions. One young man asked what I liked about living in Laos. I started answering with a couple of (true) platitudes (the countryside is beautiful, the people are friendly) and then I paused and offered that when I am in Laos I am less stressed because the pace of life is slower. The teacher immediately jumped on this comment and told the class that “this is why Laos is not a developed country – because it does not rush”.

I didn’t know how to respond. My idea of progress would not be to make Laos rush -but I can absolutely understand why he might think differently.

In a different fascinating conversation, with another Lao friend who knows her stuff when it comes to development, I mulled over a similar question. We talked about the attitudes of developed countries to developing countries (excuse the inadequate terminology) and the attitudes of people from developed countries to people from developing countries. She suggested an analogy with parents and their teenage children. The parent used to be a teenager but when they communicate with teenagers they completely forget what that experience was like and they tell them how to behave based on their current knowledge and recent experience. Telling people how to behave rarely works. Much as I might want to, expecting someone to learn something based on my experience is unlikely to be successful – they will be much more likely to learn from their own experience. People have to start where they are. Obvious…but often forgotten.

In the same conversation my friend made a comment that blew me away. We were talking about the challenges of shopping ethically and she said “in Laos we are lucky because we don’t have much choice”. On so many levels I agree – and yet I’d be surprised to hear that most Lao people agree with her. Maybe I am wrong but I suspect that most people would like to have (or think they would like to have?) more choices when they go shopping.

And here lies my conundrum. I definitely do not ever want to say that I know better and yet… I think I know (or at least I believe) that more choice and more rush often make people less happy. I’ve read the research! I worry that once more choice (and/or more rush) is introduced it cannot be taken away (just like the champagne cork can’t be forced back into the bottle). And then I worry that I’m sounding like that patronising (and ultimately ineffective) parent.

It is such an enormous luxury to be here as a researcher because not only do I have time to talk to people about these questions but my focus is to explore and try to understand rather than to change. Of course there are all sorts of ethical and practical questions about that statement but let’s save them for another time!


6 responses to “Conundrum

  1. Hi Christina
    I have been visiting India on and off all my life (as you know my Dad is Indian and my Mum English). Dad’s familiy is split between New Delhi and Jalendhar (in the Punjab). The family in Delhi run their own successful architects business, and over the years I have watched technology etc creep into every day life their. They used to be laid back, not rushing anywhere (we joked that Indian Standard Time was always to be at least an hour late), now with the introduction of i phones etc the family seem to work every hour God sends, even the beggars on the street have mobile phones – so I agree with you and I speak from experiance!

  2. I agree that more choices tend to bring less happiness. I am living in New York…a city with all the choices you can imagine…and it just creates chaos (to me). I tend to shut down and not choose anything! I wish everyone could really see and experience the difference between lifestyles. Maybe it would cause us to slow down, even a little bit, when returning to the faster paced environment and then have a ripple effect? I know that “simpler” doesn’t mean “easier” but I do think it’s a classic case of quality vs. quantity.

    Maybe I’m rambling now… 🙂

  3. I am not sure about rushing, but isn’t a question of what we mean by choice. For example, I like having the choice if I want to go out to eat. Do I want italian, indian, chinese etc? I even like that there are several indian restaurants from which I can choose. However, when it comes to something like credit cards, I feel I have options but no real choice. First of all, its become more and more necessary to use them. Also, to get the best one for you, its possible that you spend lots of time sifting through mediocre options and in the end feel like you don’t have much choice. So I guess what I am saying is choice isn’t bad if it’s real.

    • Yes…I agree that there are genuine choices and situations where we are led to believe that we have a choice when actually the choice is very limited.

      But even with the Indian restaurants I think that it’s a matter of scale. If you have 3 good Indian restaurants nearby, great. Maybe you fancy a saag paneer one night and you know which restaurant makes it just how you like it. But if there are 12 good Indian restaurants nearby and 6 of you trying to make a decision about which one to go to, you might actually be driven crazy thinking about the pros and cons of each one before you get to eat. In reality it doesn’t make much difference – you’ll have a good meal wherever. Maybe restaurants isn’t a good example, but I know how stressful I found it (and how much time I spent) researching which new phone to buy – and in reality any of them would have been just fine…

  4. You may laugh at my response to your conundrum (of course I would say this wouldn’t I!) but I think more and more that things like yoga and mindfulness are what are going to make us stop (or at least slow down) in our tracks. The more we can bring yoga (i.e. proper mindful yoga) to the West and at the same time to “developping” countries, the more we will think about the consequences of our actions and our choices whilst at the same time allowing ourselves the time to re-charge and relax. Hope that makes sense……

    • No laughing -I totally agree 🙂 I had another very interesting conversation the day after I posted this about how change is inherently neither good nor bad but we (individuals, organisations, countries) need to make mindful choices in the face of change. Which I think is exactly what you are saying? This is particularly interesting to me because in the past I might have thought in terms of ‘thoughtful’ rather than ‘mindful’ choices but probably more of that later.

      Of the top of my head, I just wonder if (particularly) rush and (possibly) too much choice make it more difficult to be mindful? I’m still playing with this…

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