The idea of shame is a strange one. Traditionally, shame was usually associated with an uncomfortable and unpleasant feeling of guilt because of our own – or someone else’s – bad behaviour. The behaviour made you feel ashamed. In this sense, I know that I’m not alone in feeling a deep sense of shame when I see the appalling behaviour of English football hooligans during international tournaments. At times like that, I feel ashamed to be English, even though it’s not really anything directly to do with me. In some cultures – like Japan – where public figures still care deeply about the way they’re perceived and where losing face is a serious matter, politicians who have been caught doing wrong sometimes end up committing suicide – killing themselves – because the shame of the sexual or financial scandal they’re caught up in is so great.
Arguably, in the UK, the idea of feeling a personal sense of shame for your actions is not as strong as it is in many other parts of the world. Indeed, we often say how refreshing it is when celebrities talk openly about mistakes they’ve made without any sense of shame. Instead of endlessly apologising and saying what an awful person they used to be and how they’ve changed now, and so on, they simply admit to having messed up and basically say So what? I’m only human! Anyone in my situation could’ve done the same thing.
In some parts of the world, the way women in particular behave is seen as being something that can potentially cause huge problems. You may have heard of so-called honour killings, where male members of a family actually murder female relatives – sometimes daughters or sisters – because they’ve had sex outside marriage or possibly even just been seen with a boy the family doesn’t approve of. This is believed to bring shame on the family – and the ‘honour’ of the family can then only be restored by an act of brutal violence! It’s a sick and twisted idea of honour, it really is!
One common phrase that shows how far removed from such notions of shame we generally are today is shame on you. In its literal sense, it’s a phrase used to tell people that they should be ashamed of themselves, that they should feel bad and sorry for what they’ve done, but far more often it’s used in a jokey way – often in classrooms! For instance, you ask students to get their homework out so you can check it and one student sheepishly admits that they’ve left their book at home . . . . and didn’t have time to do the homework anyway! Shame on you! you declare in mock outraged tones! Or students are discussing what they do outside of class, and someone says they never read anything in English if they can help it . . . Shame on you! How are you ever going to get any better? you enquire.
- Do you ever feel ashamed to be the nationality you are? If yes, when? Why?
- Have you ever done anything you were incredibly ashamed of afterwards?
- Is the idea of bringing shame on the family common in your country? How do you feel about it?
- Can you think of any times you could’ve said Shame on you to someone you know?