Asian Shame and Blame
How the same circumstances can be perceived differently in different cultures.
Posted Oct 16, 2020
The traditional Asian worldview is one where shame and blame are commonplace. I was reminded of that recently when giving a personality questionnaire to measure an Asian client's level of empathy and came across a question to the effect of, "If a friend was ripped off by a con artist, how would you respond?" The client answered in a very traditional way, "That person deserved it!" In American or Western psychological profiles, that would be deemed unsympathetic to another's plight. But the cultural consideration that this is how the majority of Asians would answer got me thinking about how deep-seated a lack of empathy can be among some Asians.
When I consider my family, my Asian clients and others report enduring similar shaming and blaming responses after bringing up something that would typically elicit care, concern, or empathy.
- "George is an idiot for falling for that kind of scam." (George got ripped off by someone who said he was from Social Security).
- "Sarah should have done a better job eating, sleeping, and taking care of herself!" (Sarah has a significant medical condition that requires regular kidney dialysis).
- "John should just kill himself then!" (Parent's response when hearing their teenage son is depressed and having suicidal thoughts).
- "What's wrong with you? How can you be so clumsy?!" (Child got hurt after falling off a bike).
- "That's their problem for being at the wrong place at the wrong time." (News report of an innocent bystander getting shot).
- "The Kims were stupid to open a restaurant in the first place." (Restaurant goes bankrupt due to Covid).
- "I warned her that was the wrong college major in college but she was so stubborn and wouldn't listen." (Daughter struggling to find a job after graduating with a liberal arts degree).
- "That's what he gets for playing basketball!" (Hearing or seeing someone break an ankle or get a significant sports injury)
Part of the cultural reasoning for these negative responses is the Asian cultural mandate of honor. When someone does anything that could be misconstrued as shaming or dishonorable to the Asian family or culture, the typical response would be similar to the examples above.
There's often an Asian need to maintain honor at all costs, even if it means appearing self-righteous, cold, or lacking empathy. The significant cultural consideration is not that the people making these shaming statements are truly mean-spirited, uncaring, or pathologically lacking empathy but that it goes against cultural norms to offer a more traditional or Western response of empathy and concern.