Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A better way to improve social graces

By William Wan, Published TODAY, 25 Apr 2014

With the prevalence of smartphones and social media today, it is becoming more common to see images and video clips of bad behaviour and mischief being posted online and shared. The intention, no doubt, is to publicly shame the perpetrators of these acts. This cannot be a healthy social norm. As much as we want people to be more gracious, shaming them into doing so is not the way to go about it.

Shame is a feeling that one is a bad person whereas guilt is a feeling that one has done a bad thing. In her research on children, psychologist Karen Caplovitz Barrett found that shame makes the subject feel small and worthless, and he or she usually responds by lashing out at a target or escaping the situation altogether. It can be devastating as it is a negative judgment that goes to the core of one’s personhood.

Guilt, though an equally negative judgment, addresses only the unacceptable action, which can be corrected by better conduct.

In Prof Barrett’s study, when children feel guilty, they tend to experience regret and remorse, and they feel empathy for the one hurt by the bad action and consequently seek to correct it.

If you want someone to improve his behaviour, deliberate shaming is clearly not the answer, though a feeling of guilt may help. So what can we do?


Ideally, it would be great if we can agree that the culture of shaming is not positive and wholesome for society. May I put forth a simple suggestion to set us on this journey of eradicating public shaming. Let’s call it name-and-fame instead of name-and-shame.

The next time you see someone doing a good deed, a kind act or something worth holding up to, take a photo or record a video of it. Then post it up on your social network and share it with others. Also, do not forget to go forward and pat the person on the back to celebrate his act.

Can such a movement get a foothold in our society? Will people share love instead of hate? It goes against much of our common history, which shows humanity as quick to anger, but slow to love. Yet, with all the ills that have come with social media, there has also been, on any given day, a strong push to spread stories of kindness and happiness.

Just looking through my Facebook news feed recently, I saw a video of a Muslim girl and a Jewish girl reciting an incredible poem together about how religion should not divide people despite differences. Another video showed a 79-year-old lady performing an amazing salsa dance that would outshine dancers a third her age, leaving the judges on Britain’s Got Talent speechless. I also saw a video advertising the world’s toughest job, which turned out to be a clever stunt to get people to realise how mothers have the world’s toughest job.

So if it is not true that people do not want to spread goodness, let’s create more goodness for people to share.

Instead of showing the ugly side of Singapore on social media and the Internet, let’s show our better selves.

Perhaps reverse psychology will kick in here and those who are bent on unpleasant and hurtful conduct might just feel guilty and decide to do something about correcting their own behaviour.

Dr William Wan is the general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

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