Mark Twain once said, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” As I have been thinking a lot about honor and shame these past two weeks, I have been compelled to look deeper and see if that is true or not.
Did you know that there is a word for the fear of blushing? Erythophobia… the fear of turning red…ie blushing. It feels to me sometimes that we as a culture have almost forgotten how to blush, not that it was a learned response anyway. Did you know that children do not blush until they are around 3 years old? Mark Twain’s maxim is probably not scientifically accurate, but the matter of being able to blush from shame is a vital one for our culture. This matter of shame is a powerful cultural phenomenon. We experience it in western culture, but not to the extent of peoples from cultures in the Middle East. We wrestle far more with guilt than we do with shame. It is a driving force in our culture.
I discussed the matter of shame and guilt in diplomacy in last weeks More than Meets the Eye. There is a wonderful TED talk by Brené Brown from last year, she said “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, “I am bad.” Guilt is, “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.
This culturally significant difference is having a profound effect on the world. This shows me the importance of having people leading our foreign policy mechanism who are culturally astute and understand these things If not, it could lead to utter chaos when one leader is saying, “you made a mistake,” and the other leader is saying “you are a mistake.” See how that might lead to a different set of outcomes?
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