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  • Meilan Uyeno

Having a Stiff Upper Lip

The first time I heard the saying "stiff upper lip" was just about a year ago. All Covid restrictions had been lifted, and almost no one was still wearing a mask. Understandably, some people were still worried about the virus and continued to wear masks for protection, but it was at a restaurant where I realized that many used them for reasons other than health. I’m sure quite a few of you wouldn’t have guessed that masks can be used to hide smiles, laughs, even frowns in public – I sure didn’t think so.


I was out for dinner with my parents a while ago, and we were just a couple tables away from a large party of what seemed to be a formal gathering or meeting. Many of the members had come to the table wearing their masks, but even those who hadn’t still brought theirs out during the meal occasionally. Curious, my mom and I both watched as they took out their masks here and there in between dishes, wondering what the purpose of that was. My mom thought it was silly since clearly there was no health benefit, but my dad simply said “it helps them keep a stiff upper lip”.


I realize now, the masks were mainly used to cover faces during funny or tense moments, and the people at the meeting tended to look away when such moments arose. A mask today often serves a similar purpose to fans in traditional Asian culture. Both are means by which to hide emotions and facial expressions. The stiffer your lip, the less emotion you can show, and the more presentable you are.


I was genuinely puzzled why someone would want to hide their feelings or opinions, let alone something as positive as laughter. My dad is from Japan, and like many Asian countries, Japan has a very collectivist culture, in which social harmony and community are highly valued. Whatever sacrifices are needed to promote conformity and professionalism must be made, whether that be in the workplace, at home, or in schools. These sacrifices often include a difference in opinion in social settings which might easily be shown by a frown or a vulnerable smile.


The Japanese concept of the stiff upper lip comes from their traditional term Gaman, which is generally translated as “perseverance”, or “tolerance”, or “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”. This term itself originated in Buddhist teachings about bettering oneself before gradually becoming more able to navigate social relations. For centuries, in most Asian countries, children have been taught to hide their emotions to put the needs of the community first and conform with the nature of their society. The idea was that people learn to respect you more when you present yourself in a formal, professional manner- no smiling, laughing, frowning, or crying.


The concept of Gaman is so deeply imbued in children that it is the norm they live by into adulthood. In the workplace, having a stiff upper lip has been reinforced in a detrimental way, as higher ups silence their inferiors, discrediting their opinions, but often maintaining the stability of the company.


Many Asian countries, including Japan, still promote the motto that the more quiet and internal the struggle, the more noble and worthwhile the person, which continues to perpetuate the stifling of emotions. Showing any kind of emotion or reaction is heavily looked down upon.This would explain why so many adults still hide their smiles, and look away rather than speak up when small conflicts arise.


These concepts were quite surprising to me at first. I’m sure there is a lot of disagreement with these values that may stem from our American individualist society where showing and sharing emotions is highly valued. Children and young adults are told to speak up immediately to anything they disagree with, and to never allow someone else to silence them. As a country, we encourage social activism and individuality, and we promote changing the status quo. Neither valuing community and conformity or individuality and social activism is necessarily better. As my parents have taught me from both Japanese and non-Asian perspectives, there are always ways to preserve social harmony while also advocating and expressing true emotion.


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