Shame and Culture – What we can learn

My fascination with shame and how it affects our performance continues! Reading an intriguing bit of research on how cultural differences in our responses to shame can affect how we perform, and how successful we are, has made me think about how we so often cut ourselves off from others when we feel ashamed, and how this impacts on what we achieve.

The researchers compared a more individualistic Western country (The Netherlands), with a country with very interdependent culture (The Philippines). In fact the two countries chosen were near the opposite ends of Hofstede’s (2001) Individualism Index.

The research was done on salespeople, and they established that the salespeople in both countries felt shame in essentially the same way, their visceral response was the same; but, how they then dealt with it was markedly different.

Salespeople rely quite heavily on their ‘Adaptive resource utilisation’ when dealing with customers, so they can adapt their selling to their audience. The more adept they are at doing this, the more successful they are at selling.

In the individualistic culture when shamed they turned in on themselves and used their energy to focus on themselves. They attempted to hide from the source of the shame (often the customer) and in increasing their focus on themselves, they reduced their adaptive resource utilisation. They became less effective salespeople.

People in the interdependent culture, however, whilst they felt the same physical and emotional response to shame, their focus to ‘fix’ the problem was to mend the social relationship. Therefore their focus was on their customer. As a result, their performance as salespeople improved.

So how does this affect us? In everyday life, we are most effective when we dynamically respond to the people around us. When we withdraw and stop seeking to enhance those relationships we allow the shame to damage those relationships, and what we can achieve.

For public speakers and performers this is even more important and relevant. Just as with salespeople, the most effective performers are those who keep the lines of communication open between them and their audience, whether it be a judge and/or jury or a concert auditorium. Once we allow shame to shut us down, turn our focus on ourselves and break the connection, we are far less able to communicate effectively or achieve our goals.

How do we stop this happening and keep ourselves open and focused on our audience? The first step is to be aware that it is shame you are feeling. Shame is an emotion that requires self-awareness to recognise. There are even those that claim that it requires self-awareness just to feel it. Not only does it require self-awareness, but also an awareness of ourselves in relation to others. As Darwin said “It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance, but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush.”

Following Brené Brown’s shame resilience steps, you must recognise the triggers of shame and your own shame automatic responses, i.e. realise what is likely to make you feel shame, and how you physically and emotionally react when you feel shame.

Once you recognise that it is shame you are feeling, what we can learn from other cultures is that shutting yourself off to protect yourself will negatively affect how you perform. So show yourself empathy, be kind to yourself, and continue to reach towards and react to your audience; continue to build your dynamic relationship with them to achieve success.


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© Hattie Voelcker Coaching 2016