What do cultures respond to? Guilt, Shame, and Fear
In light on recent events, I was astonished by some reactions from people sharing my ethnicity. It seems very easy for people of European decent to feel an extreme degree of guilt, for crimes and offenses they did not commit. We are so sensitive and ashamed of our culture and what we built that we jump to take the responsibility of every evil in the world, often times to absolute ridicule.
The Oedipus complex is a perfect example of how Greek Oedipus chose to die by putting out his eyes when he discovered he had unwittingly killed his father, and married his mother. Even if he was the only one knowing, the extreme guilt he faced was too much to bear. The guilt/shame/fear model :
Recently, I stumbled upon a very interesting concept, dividing the world in three categories to understand how people react: guilt, shame, and fear.
As above map shows, the western world and some South American countries are strongly dominated by a guilt culture. Other continents such as Africa and Asia are dominated by a shame culture. Interestingly, the level of development seems to be correlated, but that is another debate…
- To summarize, most guilt cultures are individualistic, right and wrong is the dominant dichotomy, laws and regulations are strong regulatory vectors. Being right is synonymous with social recognition and acceptation, being wrong is synonymous with rejection and stigmatization.
- On the opposite end, most shame cultures are often times collectivist. The dichotomy is not right or wrong but honorable/dishonorable. Acquiring honor in the community is the highest social goal. Shame comes from failing expectations and/or duties. In honor/shame cultures, individuals do not hesitate to make sacrifices for the team. The unspoken is more significant than the spoken, the body language communicates feelings.
- Lastly, fear/power cultures are, similarly to shame culture, collectivist. People fear evil spirits and curses.
“In a guilt culture your standing depends on your level of guilt or innocence. These cultures are obsessed with justice, with keeping people in-check with standards of right and wrong. So from their earliest days children are taught to follow the rules and are told they will be innocent if they obey those rules or guilty if they disobey them. Adults are kept in-check with endless lists of laws and, when offended, are quick to bring charges against other people in the hope that they will be found guilty. Every person experiences the desire to avoid guilt and protect innocence.”
As an example of the shame culture at play in China: “A middle-aged woman on the mainland lost her electricity because she hadn’t paid her bill. In response, she undressed and stood before the power company staff for two hours. The police came and forced her to dress. After they left, she removed her clothes again. The power company reconnected her power without receiving payment. The power company shamed the woman by shutting off her power. So, she shamed herself by standing naked in front of the staff, thereby, shaming them. To remove the shame, they gave her what she wanted so she would dress and leave.” Such event seems inconceivable in countries like France or Canada.
I find this model extremely helpful to understand today’s big social and political events.