40288_without_face___1One concept which can be helpful in recognising the differences between cultures can be the distinction between ‘guilt societies’ and ‘shame societies’.

A guilt society would be characterised by a strong sense of right and wrong, and the use of terms such as ‘ought’, ‘must’ and ‘duty’.  Individuals in such societies regulate their behaviour by reference to their own conscience.  There will be shame when somebody misbehaves, but the guilt is primary.  This society will be recognised by many western mission workers as their home culture, as this culture is often dominant in the Christian world.

Shame societies, on the other hand, will place less emphasis on abstract concepts of right and wrong and more stress on the need for social cohesion by maintaining the honour of the individual, family or nation.  Individuals will regulate their behaviour by reference to the shame that exposure would bring, and the risk of social ostracism or ‘losing face’.  There may also be a sense of guilt, but the shame of exposure would be primary.  Many of the countries in which western mission workers minister will be shame societies.

This distinction is useful for understanding why other cultures do not necessarily see things our way.  So if I come from a guilt culture, I will feel it is objectively ‘wrong’ for somebody to steal my bicycle.  But if I’m serving in a shame culture, it may be a bigger cultural taboo for me to challenge the thief, thereby exposing him to shame.  My emphasis on ‘correct’ behaviour may inadvertently have become a bigger issue than the original theft.  That is why western mission workers may perceive the people they work with as having an unacceptably low tolerance for theft, absenteeism or  bribery (for example), while themselves being perceived as being legalistically inflexible and irrationally intolerant of local norms.

Coping with culture shock?

Coping with culture shock?

The long-term impact of living in a culture different to one’s own can be stress, fatigue and even burnout.  Ethical situations may frequently tax the individual.  Some, for example, may wonder why so many people ask them for bribes, while others will be amazed that an apparently simple administrative transaction is complicated by the completion of paperwork when a simple facilitating payment would suffice.

This situation is made much more demanding for cross-cultural workers when they see Christians happily partaking in the culture they find it so difficult to understand.  Their natural inclination is to believe that their own values are correct and appropriate (and therefore Christian) and so the others are compromised.  Behaviour that is tolerated, albeit reluctantly, in the non-Christian locals is seen as unacceptable in the church.

How can we deal with such deep issues which can, if unresolved, threaten our emotional well-being and our relationships with the people we’re supposed to be serving?  Here are some suggestions:

  • recognise your own cultural preferences and try to understand those of your host culture.  Do your best to see that it’s possible that neither is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; they’re just different.
  • discuss your concerns with people of your own culture who have been there long enough to understand how the local culture works.
  • try not to be judgemental towards your host culture.  Recognise that there may be good reasons why they’re different, and acknowledge that they may likewise be judging you.
  • if particular issues vex you, look at what the Bible says about them, and be willing to recognise that your preferences might actually be no more godly than theirs.
  • be very sensitive in challenging the church with what you see as ungodly attitudes.  Don’t openly condemn but instead find a suitable Bible verse and ask them to explain what that would mean in their culture before explaining what it means in yours.

3 Responses to Guilt and shame

  1. Will Weaver

    Tim, Interesting article. I myself since living in Africa for nearly six years have changed a lot. I would say learning to ‘lighten up’ and live a little less formally has helped, although there are as you know formalities which us Brits feel challenged by when in African culture.

    I find it interesting reflecting on the examples given with regards to shame and guilt. I would say although many speak of Europe being a post Christian society, deriving its value system from post modern principles, there are still very strong values which shape the Western paradigm since the peak of Christian thinking and philosophy. I say this because having been raised in Britain the conscience has a large portion of influence, however I wonder how it is the conscience is not also speaking to people who violate God’s moral law by for example stealing a bicycle. Culture may seek to squeeze it’s inhabitants into it’s social mold, however saved or lost people are made in the image of God and will feel ‘guilty’ when violating that inherent moral code.

    We do have to be careful because on the one hand there are subjective differences were we can accept styles and tastes as matters of personal preference and opinion, however Jesus himself is the only way and taught a way which has many objective claims he requires his followers to adhere to.

  2. Yes Will, I was only reflecting yesterday on how in Britain we don’t like to challenge people for fear of rocking the boat. We’d rather sweep things under the carpet.
    The goal for all of us has to be to try to work out together, cross-culturally, what values and attitudes Jesus looks for in us today.

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