A sunflower that beams at the sun
turns into a tiny sun one day.
A seashell that plays with the ocean all day
becomes engraved with affectionate patterns of waves.
That woman starts to understand a little
the principle that
things in love with each other
grow alike with time.
– That Woman (Go Dok-mi‘s prose collection in Flower Boys Next Door)
It has long been observed that people who spend an extended period of time together eventually develop a shared resemblance. In fact, psychologists comparing photographs of couples in their newly wed days with photographs of the same couples taken 25 years later found that the facial features of spouses converge over time. After ruling out dietary and environmental causes through further studies, they concluded that the phenomenon boils down to two possible factors: genes and empathic mimicry. Firstly, people may be predisposed to pick romantic partners who share similar personality traits, which dictate their future physical appearances. The researchers, however, did not favor this theory due to the difficulty of negating it with certainty through empirical testing and the implication that unmarried people with similar personalities can also look alike. Instead, they put the spotlight on the alternative explanation: people living together tend to copy each other’s facial expressions and frequent repetitions of the same expressions shape faces in particular ways, such that these individuals gradually develop similar appearances. Notably, it is hypothesized that each time they adopt the other party’s expression, they experience the underlying emotion as well.
Yet, given the realities of today’s workplace culture, couples are not the only people who spend inordinate lengths of time in close proximity. Although we may expect romantic partners to pay closer attention to each other, people do not vanish from our field of sight when they do not share marital ties with us. Moreover, other studies have illustrated that brief exposures to photographs of strangers, each lasting merely a fraction of a second, are sufficient to stimulate some amount of reproductions of facial expressions. One may thus anticipate some sharing of emotional experiences, albeit possibly to lesser degrees, outside the marital unit as well.
Indeed, biology and social science researchers have since traced the spread of emotions through social networks, with the stunning demonstration that emotions behave like infectious diseases proliferating across networks. Furthermore, more recent research conducted, infamously, on Facebook, has shown that indirect, text-based interactions can also promote such emotional contagion. While your looks may not get “sculpted” after a gorgeous person from across the planet, chances are his/her emotional baggage gets dumped on you anyway.
These findings have profound implications for social interactions and ethical duties. Already, many self-help gurus advocate distancing ourselves from so-called “toxic” individuals, who flood our auditory senses with litanies of woes about their lives. Negative individuals, meanwhile, may be charged with the responsibility to rein in their emotions and modify their outlooks on life. On the flip side, these persons can claim that their emotional makeups are really the inevitable results of their past social experiences, wherein other caustic individuals passing through their lives, including the abusive spouse and manipulative parents they could not avoid, shaped their attitudes for the worse. Likewise, we ourselves may find it impossible to exclude them from our social circles or, if we do not know them personally, shield ourselves from the trickle-down effects their negativity propagates in the social network.
Nonetheless, these do not make us helpless victims of mood epidemics, chancing upon dizzying joy or experiencing abject misery as random actors enter and exit from our social networks with unpredictable emotional loads. As tempting as the analogy may be, emotions are not necessarily comparable to the physical concept of energy, which exists in a fixed quantity and cannot be generated from nowhere. Instead of solely mimicking the emotional expressions of others, as we involuntarily do, it is possible to consciously mimic our own imagination of what happiness, for instance, looks like – a process which has been observed to produce a self-fulfilling prophecy effect. Emotions can also spring from actions – patting an aggrieved widow on the shoulder, wrapping a depressed soul in your arms, kissing a child on his forehead. In actively generating positive emotions through these means and letting them spread through social networks, we can slowly shape the emotional landscapes within our horizons and beyond – with our own minds and hands.
Perhaps this is the other dimension to the “flower boy” concept: an individual attractive not for his gentle demeanor per se; but for, in his projection of such demeanor, daring to envisage, even for a moment, a sun shining into his soul, and forsaking a tough, “masculine” front to re-radiate its tender warmth into other lives.
Enrique Geum: “One person cannot change the world. But one can become another person’s world. A warm, bright, and peaceful world. If everyone could be someone’s bright, peaceful and pleasant world, one person becomes ten, and then a hundred, and the pleasant world expands.”