The Guilty Shame

DSC_0194I freely admit the post title could refer to our horrible lack of blog posts in the last couple of months.  As I emerge from the blearily start of having a newborn around the house and a 3rd child I apologize for our neglect of the blog.  But I have emerged, not only to a morning alone to have a moment to write a post but also outside the house, and that is actually where the post title comes from.  A recent experience at a local shop opened my eyes to my plight as a ‘guilt’ driven westerner, living in a ‘shame’ driven asian culture.

Keep in mind my observations are anodotial only.  I am not an anthropologist and the little research I did do, {read: wikipedia article} back up the observations, so I’m gonna go ahead and blog about it. I know there are more scholarly resources out there.  I’m not sure if this experience has made me more informed or empathetic, but I am a little more aware, once again, that I am very different here.

One of my recent and rare excursions out of the house, I returned from dropping our son off at school and multiple little errands along the way.   I was hauling about 8 kg of vegetables from the shops on my back and our new little infant on my front, and slowly returning home.  In the last shop I stopped I spotted on the top shelf a bag of American Style Cream and Onion Lays potato chips (because that is actually what they are called). I thought I would reward myself for making it out of the house and through morning chores.

“Please give me the bag of chips also”, I asked the shopkeeper, pointing to the bag I wanted.
“This one?”, the shopkeeper pointed to a, less than exciting, bag of masala chips a couple shelves down.
“No, the green one”, I said, pointing to the top shelf.
“You can’t have that one”, he told me.
I was a little baffled by this.  There didn’t seem to be an apparent reason I couldn’t have the bag of chips that was right in front of me.  As we stared at each other wondering what to do next, it dawned on me the small elderly shopkeeper might not be able to reach the top shelf, where sat my chips.  Ah, well this was no problem, having been a short girl my whole life, I am quite resourceful at getting things on high shelves, and I made to move around the counter to grab the chips.
“No problem,” I told the guy, “I’ll get the chips.”
“You can’t have those chips,” he told me, effectively blocking my way around the counter. “You can have the small one,” he said, offering one of those snack size bags with only 5 chips in it.
“But that is the one I want,” I pointed, still really confused.  He grabbed the bag of masala chips from the lower shelf, stuck it in my bag and proceeded to add up my order.
Instead of being gracious and just taking the chips he gave me, I took them out of the bag said, ‘no thank you’, paid for the rest of my groceries, and walked away.

I walked away feeling annoyed and confused, no only did he not give me the chips I wanted, he insisted on giving me what I did not want.  I couldn’t quite figure out the interaction and what the proper reaction should have been.  It only occurred to me later on that I had embarrassed the poor man by suggesting I would get the high shelf chips.  In the ‘shame culture’ context I had shamed him and put a huge dent in his pride and honor by 1)pointing out his shortcoming in not being able to get the chips and 2) offering to get them myself.  I had further insulted him by refusing his attempt to regain his control and composure by offering me the other bag of chips.

Dave has said he sees this in the hospital context as well when he is teaching residents.  To point out a wrong answer or a mistake is ‘shaming’ someone and it must be dealt with more delicately than our direct, guilt-inducing, western methods.  As westerners the concept of ‘shame’ is literally foreign to us.  We are individualists and consider ourselves responsible for our own behavior, success and failure both.  We promote our successes and attempt to correct our mistakes.  We also use another’s personal guilt to achieve a better result for ourselves.  In shame culture or community culture, any success is credited to the family or community and a failure is singling the individual out and separating them from the community.  They refuse to admit fault as it dishonors the individual or family in the community.

Functioning in a shame culture when we are so different is kind of infuriating and doesn’t make sense.  It almost seem counter productive for getting what you really want.  Dave can’t get residents to correct errors and admit faults and all I want is a bag of chips!  But here is the thing…it doesn’t really matter when it comes down to the bottom line of building relationships.  It isn’t about what makes more sense or who has the better cultural way to behave.  It is about Dave creating trust with his resident to practice better medicine, and about me not embarrassing an old man who is part of my community here.

So I may not really get ‘shame’ culture and I may not be able to behave as a Nepali would in all situations, but I can be a little less American and guilt inducing and just take the bag of masala chips. =)