Can Anything Good Come from Shaming Others?

4 min read

Everyone has felt ashamed at one time or another. It’s like feeling guilty, only worse.

When I was 10 years old, I pocketed a bag of beef jerky and walked out of the store without paying. Did I feel guilty? Absolutely. I knew I had done something wrong.

Suppose I had stolen the beef jerky and been caught. In that case, I would have felt ashamed. Deeply ashamed—and that would have been worse.

You see, my father was a Presbyterian minister, and our family enjoyed good standing in the community. If I had been caught stealing, almost everyone in our small town would have eventually learned that I had acted disgracefully and besmirched the honor of my family.

Shaming Can Be Harmful

In circumstances like these, say psychologists, feeling guilty is emotionally unpleasant, but the experience of shame can be psychologically devastating. Individuals who have been publicly shamed may feel anxious and depressed. They may withdraw socially and experience a loss of self-esteem. In some cases, shamed individuals become defensive, angry, and aggressive.

For all these reasons, it’s easy to understand why parents and other adults in Western societies rarely shame a child, either in public or in private. I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say to a child, “Shame on you! You’re embarrassing me and yourself!”

Shaming in Collectivistic Cultures

Notice that I qualified my remark by specifying “Western societies.” That’s because the psychology of shame operates very differently in non-Western societies, especially those in East Asia, South Asia, and the Arab world.

In these collectivistic cultures, shaming is commonly used to reinforce social norms and persuade children to lead a morally correct life. After living in Morocco for several months, I learned that the most effective way to deal with children who begged for money was to look at them sternly and say, “Hshuma!Hshuma is a Moroccan word that loosely translates as “being shamed in the eyes of others.” Most Moroccans want to act in ways that are morally correct and culturally acceptable because they live in a society that values honor and a good reputation.

In a recent issue of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, two Sri Lankan psychologists at the University of Peradeniya—Nethmie Liyanage and Ramila Usoof-Thowfeek—examine the emotion of shame through a cultural lens. They note that, in cultures where individuality is suppressed, shaming others can function as a disciplinary measure to ensure that people conform to expected standards of social behavior.

Shaming Need Not Be Harmful

Liyanage and Usoof-Thowfeek maintain that, in collectivistic societies, feeling ashamed doesn’t have the same negative psychological impact it does in individualistic societies. In collectivistic cultures, the individual self is less central and less precious. Most people don’t strive to achieve a high level of self-esteem. Instead, they strive to improve themselves, to better themselves. In this context, feeling ashamed is experienced less harshly (Liyanage & Usoof-Thowfeek, 2023).

Liyanage and Usoof-Thowfeek further bolster their argument by noting that many collectivistic cultures have an extensive vocabulary to refer to shame, whereas in some cases there is no word for guilt. For example, in the Sinhala language (the most widely spoken language in Sri Lanka), there are several words such as pal, baldu, chi, lajjawa, and nindawa that can be used to refer to shame. In contrast, there is only one word—pasuthawima—that has a meaning similar to guilt, although it normally translates as “regret” (Obeyesekere, 1984). A concept that is signified by many words is more cognitively accessible and emotionally available than a concept that is signified by just one word.

In collectivistic cultures, it’s common for misbehaving children to be bombarded with expressions such as “Shame on you! That’s embarrassing!” and “How come I have such a child?” Adults say things like this to naughty children in private but also in public (Liyanage & Usoof-Thowfeek, 2023).

When these child-rearing practices are judged within a Western cultural framework, they often are judged as harmful to a child’s well-being. A more culturally informed approach, however, allows for a more nuanced evaluation of shaming others, an evaluation that recognizes shaming as an effective method for teaching children how to behave properly.

Finally, how should we think about shamelessness (showing a lack of shame)? In collectivistic Japan, acting shamelessly is not tolerated. The desire to remove shame is so great that people in Japan sometimes take drastic measures such as committing suicide. Not so in the United States apparently, where even highly public figures who behave shamelessly are usually allowed to keep their job.

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