Western teacher in a Thai school – understanding more about shame and guilt cultures

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Referring to the notion of shame and guilt, in many countries each culture and the people within it adopt a way of dealing with wrong behavior. The emphasis here is on how an individual person reacts to an action done by them which is seen as not being right in their society. So, I will show how shame and guilt work in daily life. I will focus on types of behavior, attitudes, and beliefs that are installed in culture. This is actually written specifically for individuals to think about their behavior and to think if their wrong actions belong to a guilt culture or shame culture. It is also written for each person to think more about their behavior when they commit something wrong and how they should behave. This is not forgetting those people who decide to work and live in another country far removed from what they are used to and what they will see.

Shame and guilt sometimes are considered to be similar feelings while within different cultures and countries they become separate entities when you look closer at people’s behavior. For example if a person was driving along the road and they saw a red light, which they should stop, but they continued through that light even though they had time to stop, how would they feel? In a shame culture the person would (not in every case) look around to see if anyone saw them. If no-one saw them and nothing happened they would happily drive away thus not really having a feeling of doing anything wrong. In a guilt culture if the same action happened, the driver would still look around but they would feel bad that they did something wrong thus producing a feeling of guilt. The feeling of guilt then becomes an inner feeling. It is as if they know they did wrong and they are punishing themselves for it because they know what is right. The guilty driver gives the feeling to the self. The feeling of shame, in this case none, is seen as an external feeling (police) because in this situation no external force saw the driver through so there is no feeling for that person.

Shame comes about when someone is found out to have done something wrong and other members of society know. It is the feeling of letting down others. Japanese culture is a shame culture where if humiliation is felt, it can lead to extremes such as suicide where the person feels they have let their whole family down. The person has brought shame on the family. So, shame exists when a person’s peers, colleagues, or their family find out about that person’s misdeeds. In many ways in a shame culture a person can do what they like, they should just not get caught. For example a student can copy in an exam or hand in work that is copied from the internet. If they are not caught they can happily carry on with their studies disregarding the fact that they cheated to pass the class or exam. There is no guilt and because no one found out they feel no shame. And a strange part of this misdemeanor is that if another student mentioned their copying and complained, that student is doing wrong because they are complaining. All the same, it is actually hard for someone in a shame culture to say they did wrong because they know they will bring shame on themselves.

So, a shame culture is more on being honorable or saving face than being right or wrong. The feeling of shame actually brings on powerlessness so in many cases there becomes an intensity to defend oneself because the accuser is making the accused feel bad. Thus, in a shame culture there is seen a relative calm among people that no-one will stand up and protest or complain to someone face. They live in a collectivist society where you live in a group and being individual is not counted. It is seen that groups must always project positive images and keep up appearances, show calmness, and adhere to public politeness.

Guilt on the other hand is ingrained in people. In their culture they are told that they have done something wrong and that they should feel bad for what they have done. Children are taught from a young age between right and wrong. Guilt culture has its roots in religion where truth and justice prevail. It is meant to preserve the self to know what is right and wrong and not to commit sin. If you do something wrong the transgression is between the individual and God. In shame culture a person would not indulge in self analysis as it may end up in a detrimental image of the self. In many cases the guilty person will use their guilt to change something about themselves. On the whole, guilt is a form of social conscience. So, each person is aware of their surrounding and what they are doing. For example, students who feel no guilt will happily talk in class while not being aware that when they talk they disrupt others and stop the teacher from teaching. All the same they will happily talk on a telephone (loudly in some cases) in a lift or on a bus. Feeling guilty helps with a person’s awareness and stops them from committing a social faux pas.

An example where shame and guilt culture can have all its attribute and deficits belongs in a story of a Chinese airline flight. The flight was to take off at 7pm from Hong Kong to Bangkok. The flight was almost full. The pilot said they were waiting for a connecting flight from Beijing that would transfer some passengers. The pilot said the flight would be delayed. So, the passengers, who were already on the plane, had to wait for 1 hour for the connecting flight. The small contingent of passengers from Beijing then boarded and the flight finally left at 8.30pm. Once the flight took off, the late passengers then started shouting, laughing, taking pictures and generally not caring about other around them. They were actually Government officials. The questions for this scenario regarding shame and guilt refer to many people involved in this situation. Firstly, how would you feel if you were a passenger waiting?  Also, do the Government people feel any guilt about being late? Are they not aware of others? Did the pilot not admit what the problem was entirely to avoid shame from passengers getting angry? Why did the pilot stay on the ground even though the flight was mostly full? These questions and the scenario are interesting as guilt and shame can and maybe should have been felt by some of the people.

Both of the cultures, shame and guilt, can be seen from different angles. It can be recognized that in a shame culture no one really wants to say anything out of line even if it is true. Also, a guilt culture can prevent someone with getting on with daily life as the guilt hinders them. In a shame culture there is a relative calmness as no one complains. With this calmness people are less likely to get stressed out by silly things but the guilt culture people want to show something is wrong and feel justified in saying it. To conclude, if one used Japan and America as example of shame and guilt cultures respectively would anyone honestly say either country progression has been held back by their view on bad behavior as both have their positive and negative sides?


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