Ii/ii: "why Do We Work So Hard?”: Introduction to Guilt- and Shame Cultures

A man must not be without shame, for the shame of being without shame is shamelessness indeed.

- Mencius -

There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.

- Oscar Wilde -


As discussed in last week’s article, motivation is usually defined by one’s cultural values: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs [1] - according to which self-actualization represents the highest stage of human motivation - may not therefore apply to traditionally collectivist, non-Western societies that place greater emphasis on social rather than individual needs.


But what do we mean by “social needs”, from a non-Western perspective?


In a collectivist culture [2] social needs correspond with being recognized as a valuable member of the society: its members tend to put common goals ahead of individual pursuits, and the way they perceive themselves is strictly correlated with their role within the community (eg, “I am a good friend” v “I am a nice guy”).


Research comparing individualistic (Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and the USA) and collectivist countries (Japan, South Korea, and Spain) found higher social anxiety and higher acceptance toward socially-avoidant behaviours in collectivist rather than in individualistic societies [3], an outcome that seems to be supported by data shared by the World Population Review with regard to suicide rate by country in 2019 [4], according to which the suicide rate in both South Korea and Japan is alarmingly high:


One factor in its [South Korea] high suicide rate is suicides among the elderly. Traditionally, children have been expected to care for their ageing parents; however, because this system has largely disappeared in the twenty-first century, many elderly people commit suicide, so they do not feel like they are a financial burden on their families.

In addition to the elderly, students have higher-than-average suicide rates, at least in part because their families tend to put high levels of pressure on them to succeed academically. When they do not achieve the goals that their parents have set for them, they may feel that they have dishonoured their families and commit suicide. Alcohol use, sleep deprivation, stress, and poor social relationships can put students at increased risk of suicide.


Japanese men are twice as likely to commit suicide as their female counterparts, particularly after a divorce. Of special concern is suicide among men who have recently lost their jobs and are no longer able to provide for their families. They may feel that they have dishonoured themselves and their families and that suicide is the honourable way out of the situation. With a high cultural tolerance for suicide, many older adults end their lives after they retire. 


[Note: In the fiscal year 2016/7 up to March suicides among Japanese young people hit 30-year high [5]. “The survey found that for elementary and junior high school students, family-related matters such as discipline issues or bad relationships with their parents were major factors related to suicide.

For high school and university students, key reasons included weak academic performances, worries over choices of future courses or depression.”]

To better understand the concepts of honour and shame that seem to be so deeply ingrained in Asian cultures we must look at the work of anthropologist Ruth Benedict [6], who popularized the terms “guilt-” and “shame culture” in relation to American and Japanese culture respectively.

While guilt and shame are often confused and may in some cases overlap, the main difference between them is that “guilt” is the feeling we experience when we compromise our own moral standards, while“shame” is how we feel in relation to others, it’s the embarrassment caused by breaking some social norms, it’s the loss of face.

Both guilt and shame are tools of social control rooted in religious beliefs that missiologist Paul Hiebert [7] summarized as follows:

“Guilt is a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience. A person may suffer from guilt although no one else knows of his or her misdeed; this feeling of guilt is relieved by confessing the misdeed and making restitution. True guilt cultures rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behaviour, not, as shame cultures do, on external sanctions. Guilt cultures emphasize punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order.

“Shame is a reaction to other people's criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame-oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one. Personal desires are sunk in the collective expectation. Those who fail will often turn their aggression against themselves instead of using violence against others. By punishing themselves they maintain their self-respect before others, for shame cannot be relieved, as guilt can be, by confession and atonement. Shame is removed and honour restored only when a person does what the society expects of him or her in the situation, including committing suicide if necessary.”


Such differences - if mishandled or underestimated - are likely to have grave repercussions in an international workplace, such as:


- Asian nationals - members of groups that place strong emphasis on conformity, in which “social deviations” are therefore easier to detect - are on average more prone to embarrassment than members of Western cultures. They are also expected to bring honour to the groups they belong to: their family, their co-workers, ultimately their Country as a whole. The concept of feedback based on direct communication most Westerners seem to appreciate may not work well in a scenario in which Asian workers are involved (in Asian cultures, the notion of “face” is of the utmost importance).


- In relation to the previous point, it must be noted that “Morality among collectivists is more strongly contextual, and the highest value is the welfare of the group” [8]: if the aim is to help members of the in-group or to save social reputation, lying may be considered an acceptable behaviour (see also references to the “Mum Effect” in a previous article: “Some of the main factors that are highly likely to negatively impact the outcome of a project are: urgency (at what stage of a flawed project is the need for remedial action required?); personal accountability (to what extent is one of the parties involved in a troubled project willing to take responsibility for its failure?); these are potentially coupled with cultural factors such as PDI (Power Distance — the strength of hierarchy within a societal group and the extent to which individuals perceived as wealthier, wiser, and better educated than others are granted more power in comparison with others), IDV (Individualism — the extent to which people are more inclined to pursue personal over collective goals and achievements), LTO (Long-Term Orientation — the extent to which long-term objectives are prioritized over immediate gains).




[Next week’s article: The notion of “face”: honour and social reputation in Asian countries]






[1] Maslow, A. H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346

[2] Hofstede, G. H. (1997). “Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind” (second ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill

[3] Schreier, S. - S., Heinrichs, N., Alden, L., Rapee, R. M., Hofmann, S. G., Chen, J., Oh, K. J., et al. (2010). “Social anxiety and social norms in individualistic and collectivistic countries”. Depression and Anxiety, 27(12), 1128-1134. doi:10.1002/da.20746

[4] Online: http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/suicide-rate-by-country/

[5] Online: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/07/16/national/social-issues/school-matters-no-1-issue-behind-youth-suicides-2018-japanese-government-white-paper-finds/#.XfVew-j7TIU

[6] Herbert R. (1946). “The chrysanthemum and the sword : patterns of Japanese culture”. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co.

[7] Hiebert, Paul G. (1985). ”Anthropological Insights for Missionaries”. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House

[8] Triandis, H. C. (1995). “Individualism and collectivism”. Boulder, CO: Westview Press


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