The New York Times article—“The Industrial Revolution of Shame”—says it all (Scibona, 2019). New technologies have given both individuals enormous power to shame others and authoritarian governments the ability to socially control citizens on an unthinkable scale. Such social and political forces released by information technologies also challenge us to act responsibly to shape the fourth industrial revolution for the common good (Schwab & Davis, 2018).

On a personal level, shame is commonly experienced when one’s self-identity or self-esteem is damaged because of mistakes, failures, or defeats. It is a self-conscious emotion involving a negative evaluation of one’s moral self. But shame is also commonly experienced through a process of group identification and the negative evaluation of one’s social self (Salice & Sánchez, 2016).

The struggle to hide the broken aspects of ourselves and the desperate need to share our dark secrets can be characterised by ambivalence between shame/guilt and the desire to find healing from these painful emotions. Thus, guilt-based shame can motivate us to seek healing and transformation. Similarly, the feeling that one’s performance is not good enough can also be a motivator for self-improvement to measure up to one’s own expectation or perceived group norm.

These shame feelings can be greatly amplified because of the prospect for public shaming and punishment through new technologies. This chapter focuses on cultural differences between the East and the West in two major types of shame: relational shame and moral shame. The East is a shame-based culture, while the West is a guilt-based culture (Wong & Tsai, 2007). The East emphasizes relational shame as necessary for maintaining interpersonal relationships and group harmony. In contrast, the West views shame more negatively as a moral failure worse than guilt – guilt means I have done something bad, while shame means that I am a bad person (Brown, 2012;  Lewis, 1998; Van Norden, 2002).

The Chinese are much more sensitive to relational shame, and they have many shades of shame. Li, Wang, and Fischer (2004) started with a list of 83 words that were related to 羞 xiu “shame/shyness,” 耻 chi “disgrace,” and 辱 ru “humiliation/shame” from the dictionary; the list was then expanded to 113 shame-related words and phrases, most of which are relationally-related shame and are not translatable to English. Even when there are equivalent translations, the emotional content encoded in the words might be different (Bai, 2015; Lin & Yao, 2016).

Guilt cultures in the West rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behavior, emphasizing punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order; whereas shame cultures in the East depend on external sanctions, emphasising self-denial and humility as ways of restoring the social order (Hiebert, 1985). For both cultures, the violation of personal identity leads to shame. However, for shame cultures, personal identity is dependent on continued relations with the group, since shame is a more effective way of social control rather than guilt (Bedford & Hwang, 2003).

With respect to mental health, moral guilt is more related to mental health problems, and forgiveness and self-compassion are antidotes, whereas relational shame is more related to the virtue of humility and self-improvement, in order to regain group acceptance or social status.

In addition, this chapter also addresses the ambivalent feelings related to shame, such as the uneasy feeling of shyness (害羞 haixiu) from being introduced to a boyfriend’s parents, or the painful feelings of humiliation (屈辱quru) from having one’s dark secrets exposed through social media. In the Chinese language, most of these ambivalent terms have the root word of 羞 xiu, 耻 chi, or 辱 ru.

Most human emotions are complex. The human quest for personal growth and wholeness necessarily involves struggling with ambivalent feelings through the dialectical process as proposed by second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0; Wong, 2011). This struggle makes us both stronger and wiser.

This chapter will explain different ambivalent terms in Chinese and elaborate the theoretical framework of PP 2.0, which emphasizes the need to cultivate the ability to hold two opposing thoughts or emotions together, since seeking positive mental health in both the workplace and close relationships demands us to learn how to embrace dissonant thoughts and ambivalent emotions (Wong, 2019).


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Wong, P. T. P. (in press). A cross-cultural perspective of shame and its implications for mental health and social control. In C. H. Mayer., E. Vanderheiden, & P. T. P. Wong (Eds.), The meaning of shame revisited in cultures of the 4th Industrial Revolution.