The British ‘Stiff Upper Lip’ and the Colonisation of Emotion

I’m a very ‘emotional’ person. At least, that’s what I’ve always been told. And living in the UK, we’re conditioned to believe that being ‘emotional’ is a bad thing. When have you ever heard anyone being described as ‘emotional’ in a positive way? The word is chock-full of judgement, disdain and even disgust. Expressing, or even admitting to feeling emotions is a weakness, a fault, something to be ashamed of. Emotions are as much a part of the human experience as eating and breathing – every action we take or that is taken around us inspires a response in our brains, so why is shutting that response down prized as the sign of a good person, a strong character, someone better, more acceptable than those of us who engage with the reality of our experiences? This is, to me, a white-British cultural stranglehold on emotional expression, and extension of colonialism that goes right into our heads and tells us how to feel and how to express those feelings in order to gain approval in white British society. It’s the emotional equivalent of doctoring our names for the English tongue (which I’ve already covered extensively).

It’s been exhausting living in a society that expects you to adjust your expressions of sadness and anger to make them acceptable and palatable to others, especially when you’ve been raised in a family where crying when you’re sad and shouting when you’re angry are normal. Bursting into tears in public, even among friends, can result in awkwardness, disapproval and even mockery, but why shouldn’t you cry when you’re in pain? And heaven forfend that you shout and call someone out if they do something bad to you. No, you’re supposed to seethe calmly and do something nasty and backhanded later – this is the behaviour the Empire was built on! Rather than being able to actually prioritise your own feelings and look after yourself and be looked after on your own terms to meet your own needs you are forced to conform to the dominant stereotype of what is and is not a socially acceptable form of behaviour. If you don’t do this, you risk being criticised, ostracised, belittled, demeaned and even accused of madness. Being told that ‘there’s no need for that’ or ‘you should just get over it’ is cultural bullying-no more, no less. It is nobody’s business to dictate the validity of anyone else’s emotional expression. Unfortunately, the outdated concept of the ‘emotional foreigner’, that staple of TV sitcom humour, is alive and well. Just because most folks are PC enough not to voice it in these terms these days, doesn’t mean it’s gone away. The idea of the English ‘stiff upper lip’ as being superior to ‘childish, foreign’ displays of emotion is aggressive, condescending bigotry. It is also extremely unhealthy as the pressure of enforced emotional silence can lead to self-harm and suicide. We’re all on board with the fact that calling women ‘emotional’ is straight-up sexist, so why is it still okay to push outdated colonial motifs of emotional gagging as the desired way to respond to difficult situations? Could it be because, frankly, our white middle-class elite just don’t want to know about other people’s problems cos they’re just too damn selfish to get involved? I think it might.

Ahhh, the Western fetishisation of ‘not getting involved’. If someone is crying, walk away – they might be crazy, or even if they’re not, why trouble yourself with their problems? Oh, and give them a filthy look so that they’ll be ashamed of daring to show their pain in public. That’s the way to do it. When have you ever heard a South Asian auntie (or uncle) say they weren’t going to get involved, or it isn’t any of their business?! South Asian culture is built on getting involved – yes, sometimes a little too much (‘do you want me to find a nice husband for you?!’), but it is what it is, and the idea that those behaviours and responses are wrong and need changing is something that white people have grilled into us. Oh, confrontations are bad, loyalty is bad, taking a side (that’s not your own) is bad. Having a fucking opinion is bad. We should all be glacial vanilla anodyne acolytes. Especially if you’re a women. Especially if you have brown skin. Cos no one wants to be the Angry Brown Woman do they? Look how ridiculous they look next to the nice Silent White Women? Making a fool of themselves shouting and drawing attention. This is why we’re better than them. This is why they can’t be trusted. Not one of us, you see. This ideology of silent tolerance is yet another othering stick to beat us with, another tool of cultural oppression. It has also created a culture of uncertainty, never knowing if someone really likes you, not being able to trust people because no one is expressing themselves honestly, and feeling isolated because our friendships aren’t really that close. Loneliness is pervasive because no one wants to look needy or risk the judgement that comes with asking for help, and betrayal and backstabbing are the routine responses to dislike or disapproval. What a nice world that stiff upper lip has created.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that East is better than West – anyone who’s had elder South Asian friends or family get all up in their business knows just how frustrating and suffocating that can be. It’s the assumed, inherent superiority of what is undeniably a profoundly unhealthy way of responding to emotions, and the way that this entrenches existing forms of cultural suppression that needs to change. Being described as ‘emotional’ should not be an insult. To acknowledge having feelings and to express them as they are should not be looked down on. I want to take a punch at that stiff upper lip and wipe the smirk right off it cos there is no Empire anymore.

January 2020

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