When the online meeting had finished, I hung up and reflected on how quiet the Asian participants had been. They were not completely quiet, but usually waited patiently for others to finish speaking, and only spoke when asked for their thoughts. In contrast, those from the West were free and quick to express their thoughts. Online virtual meetings are especially difficult in cross-cultural settings, as it’s harder to see how others respond—what they expect and react to. Much depends on personality and the issues at hand, but in general Asian coworkers are often quieter.
Reflecting on this reminds me of the need to understand shame, fear, and guilt cultures. People of guilt cultures can be shy but are generally more direct, expecting the listener to decide how to receive what’s been said. For them it’s okay to express one’s thoughts. The peak of this kind of thinking is seen in the author Molière who dealt with the ethics of always telling the truth and never keeping silent even if it hurt others. This thinking is inconceivable for our friends from shame cultures.
First, those from shame cultures must consider what others hear and how it will be received by the listener. In an online meeting, without seeing and knowing the other participants well, you can’t be sure how what you say is heard and received.
Second, there’s the question of what is said. Is your comment relevant or wise enough? You don’t want to embarrass yourself or others if your comment falls short. It’s better to repeat or stay with the same pattern that has already been taken.
Third, the dynamics of the group can’t be ignored including how each one fits in, especially with regard to age and status. This is not what we from the West expect in a “round table” meeting. We want everyone to have a voice and give input. How we relate to others is part of life for all of us but even more so for Asians in shame-honor cultures. In that culture it is always better to stay safe when you steer through uncertain waters. Silence or safe comments are the best; you fulfil what is expected of you.
Relating the “Right” Way
As soon as we try to find the “right” way—one set way to relate and do things—and make that a definitive rule or guideline then we have lost the way. The key is precisely that in shame cultures everything is relative and in relationship to everyone around. The “right” way is defined by the group, by friends and family; and then people from guilt cultures need to understand that the way to relate in each of these different circumstances is the “right” way. The tricky part is when you define “right” in this way it will change depending on the group you are relating to.
This doesn’t mean that each person only relates to one of these cultures—we all have a mix of these three cultures—but we stress them differently and handle them differently. For example, everyone feels and understands shame, but it impacts our hearts differently. If a person from a guilt culture feels shame, as if you want to hide yourself, it will still seem easier to explain yourself or wash it off like it only stained your exterior. But for a shame-culture person what happened is less important but is an issue of personal shame—their whole existence is shamed. The issue is there, but the focus is on the person and effect on the person’s relationships. The person is shamed and others are affected by this shame, and the shame will not naturally disappear even if the issue is solved.
If we look at the meeting mentioned in the beginning, it is easy to say that all comments are accepted and all opinions are welcome so there is no issue of shame, but the reality is that the words are not really that important. The real focus will be on the acceptance of each person and how each person affects others and not the words and opinions expressed.
Comparing the Three Cultures
It’s helpful to divide the world into three types of culture, but it is important to remember that they are not mutually exclusive but overlapping and inter-woven in all of us. One aspect can be dominant or show itself more, but that doesn’t mean that the characteristics of the other cultures don’t exist in us. Understanding the three types of cultures is very helpful in recognizing and making sense of different ways of reasoning and acting. It can help us understand our neighbors and perspectives other than our own.
Shame, fear, and guilt cultures all have opposites. They are all part of the sin of humans and are clearly seen in Genesis 3. We often see sin to be the breaking of a command or divine laws—picking and eating the forbidden fruit—while actually sin is everything that keeps us separated from God. Without going too deep into this, we can see that separation from our creator started before the fruit was picked, when Eve listened to the snake and chose to trust and act on those words instead of God’s. The action continued to drive a wedge between man and his creator. Instead of confessing and showing honor or facing what may come, they ran away, hid, and excused their actions by blaming each other and the snake. They received the punishment of exile, pain and death—the foundations of fear. The truth is that we need restoration from all three, to be restored from guilt to righteousness, from shame to honor, and from fear to shalom (wholeness, health and peace).
Watch for the conclusion of this two-part blog next week.
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