Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Learning to act right (41)… a smile of shame
Torrey Orton
April 23, 2014

 It was a smiling shame, what I did…

...and the scooter driver picked it, but wrongly, the minute he pulled up next to my driver’s side window. My mistake enraged him and powered my shame more intensely, as he pointed out that my smile was an indication of my pleasure at his endangerment by my pulling in front of him as he was trying to pass in the curb-side lane. I had completely missed him in the blind spot of the rear-view mirror, partly because I was making a late decision to go for a parking space next to the bread shop and partly because I was coming off a reasonably intense couple of hours witnessing Catholic anti-abortionists harass patients at the Fertility Control Clinic.

Cause aside, I was so stricken at my near mushing of man and scooter that I didn’t even think to apologise and he was gone before I pulled myself out of my dumb smile in the light of my exposed incompetence – a variant on struck dumb in the lights of the hunter – now doubly self-condemned for not having acknowledged my fault.

But for this mistake, I would still not know that I, too, can smile at being caught out in error. Not something I’d ever experienced before, but never before had there been a possibly catastrophic error for an innocent other. For years I have thought and taught that it is a cultural characteristic of Chinese to stand in the face of a public event like a car accident and smile broadly at the remains of the victim(s).

I’d seen it happen often enough in Shanghai to know my experience wasn’t a peculiar oncer. My Chinese acquaintances and friends explained fluently that such smiling and laughing was an expression of embarrassment. So it was something recognisable to them, as well. Anxiety, guilt and shame are universally available in human cultures, but their expressions differ so conflictedly that imagining the ‘wrong’ other’s version is near impossible. They just don’t pass the knife/fork vs. chopsticks test – eating looking wrong can be intimately offensive from whichever privileged angle you look at it.

But understanding the feeling-behaviour connection has never been simple. For us (native English speakers?) a blank or frowning look is appropriate for publically played out personal disasters. Little have I ever thought I would be able to pull off with such precision what I thought a major cultural difference. Hopefully, unlike other differences which I have mastered with intent, this one I fluked through inattention will be the oncer. I suspect that the conditions of its occurring this time will not often recur and so cannot be pre-empted even with practice. The slighter flushed downcast expression of embarrassment (cousin of guilt and shame) warns only weakly of the overwhelming energy unleashed in my smiling shame.

Maybe this is what a thick skin protects for those prone to exposing themselves in public.


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