It’s a habit some of us have: being neat and tidy. A neat freak. That is, some of us like things to be in a certain order or place.
I’m one of these neat people, always making sure to put things away things I don’t need for a while. A few years ago I had an Asian colleague called Mandy the Magician and she is a neat person too. One day she finished all her work for the day and decided to tidy our office – sorting a plastic tub full of paperclips, a plastic tub the size of your average rectangular pillow, sorting silver paperclips from the coloured ones.
Being neat is a trait that transcends cultures. People all over the world are neat. Perhaps it’s a personality trait, a choice to be neat.
We’re neat and tidy because like to be organised. We like things to have their own place so that we can find them more easily when we need them. At the end of the day at work, I make time to arrange my pen next to my keyboard – it gives me peace of mind that I’ll have my pen in one second when I need it the next morning.
Some of us make the effort to be neat because we want space. An uncluttered space means less distractions for some of us. With only my laptop and notebook on my desk at home, all my attention turns to writing.
Maybe we’re neat because we have nothing better to do and want to be productive. One afternoon I walked over to Mandy’s desk where she was sitting with the paperclips and asked, “Why?”. She threw the coloured paperclips one by one into a tub on her right and the silvers into another on her left. Thunk, thunk, thunk. Dyed red hair pulled away from her forehead, eyes gazing at the growing mountains of paperclips from behind those large black glasses on her face, she said, “There’s nothing else to do”.
Sorting paperclips into neat piles isn’t something many of us do. Maybe Mandy’s neatness is due to OCD behaviour. And hyper-concern of order can be triggered by feelings of childhood routine.
Maybe Asians tend to be neater than others, others from Western culture. I grew up in a typical Chinese household in Malaysia, a very tidy Asian household. Every time I dropped a single grain of rice or cookie crumb on the floor, my mum yelled, “Pick it up! Don’t dirty the floor!”. Which I did. My mum also insisted on us taking our shoes off before we entered the house (so our footwear wouldn’t drag stones in and leave random dirt trails over the floor) unlike many Westerners.
She was also fond of arranging furniture a certain way at home back then: beds facing away from the door, potted plants in the corner. My parents are believers in feng shui, believing an airy, spacious house brings good chi to the family. I might have picked up my neat habit just by watching her.
Sometimes fear and insecurity drive us to be neat. When we’re arranging things or keeping up our appearances, we feel like we can be perfect: we feel like we’re in control and things won’t go wrong because there’s a system. As my mum swept the floor and pushed back the furniture in their usual place, she always mumbled something about getting sick from a dirty home. Outside, stacks of rubbish sat uncollected on our street corners.
It’s not easy being neat. It takes time, effort and even skill to get things into place where they “should” be. There are different kinds of neat freaks, for instance, like that person who always wipes the table with sanitiser twice or the person who is a fussy groomer – seemingly uptight people. Then there are those not-so-neat folks, the messy folks like Einstein and Mark Twain who are seen as creative geniuses.
But that’s not to say us neat people can’t be impressive, and neat people can be inspirational. That afternoon at work Mandy separated all the silver paperclips from the coloured ones. The next afternoon, the thunk of paperclips filled our ears again. One of my colleagues, blonde-haired-leaving-papers-all-over-her-desk Simone, had finished her share of work that day and wandered towards the sound, and found Mandy rummaging through the coloured paperclips.
“Sorting them by degree of colour?” Simone exclaimed, loud enough for the whole office to hear. “Amazing!” She grabbed a fistful of them and went back to her desk, divvying them up. Later that day I wandered over to the paperclips: all the coloured paperclips were now nestled in their own compartments in a plastic tub, cardboard compartments made by Mandy. Certainly none of us were sleeping on the job that afternoon.
Being neat gives us a sense of purpose. We work towards something, and we learn to get things done. And feel good while we’re at it. In small doses.
Are you a neat and tidy person?