America...a Nation of Shame?

I received an interesting article today from Stevie Ray's "Improvising Business" column. I liked it and thought it good enough to share.
America...a Nation of Shame?

If you walk into my training center you would see walls filled with pictures of former students having a great time. You would see posters of old events, linking the past to the present. And, as you walk past a row of chairs to get a soft drink out of the refrigerator, you would see three marble plaques with faces and names etched on them. These are three people who passed away while still attending classes with us. It's another way that we honor the past.

Some thought it was odd to place to put such somber reminders, in a classroom that is constantly filled with fun and laughter, but these reminders cause no more discomfort than the pictures of people who have not passed away, but have moved on from the company for one reason or another. We laugh every now and then as we recall particular quirks about each person. We certainly don't think, "Well, we had better not have any fun while the memory of that guy is still in the room." No one is ashamed to move on, participate in class, and do what they came to do.

The same can not be said for much of America right now. Businesses, consumers, and employees are frozen; afraid to move, afraid to talk, and afraid to stand out. People who have good jobs (which is still over 90% of us), and have no cause to panic, are freezing up and questioning every move they make. The cause for this freezing up is not what you might think. It is not caused by fear. Fear about the economy and fear about the future are not causing people to hoard everything they have and put off buying anything except food and clothing. It is true that people buy with emotion and justify their decision with facts. In this case, however, the emotion is not fear. Fear actually inspires action more often than not. When people are afraid they often act quickly, whether they make the right decision is discovered after the fact.

No the emotion that is actually crippling America is shame. "Spending shame" has been identified in many countries around the globe as the reason people who have plenty of money are still not buying anything. They are not afraid they won't have money later; they are worried about what everyone else will think of their spending. There are even companies offering to ship your purchase in a plain brown wrapper so that no one else will know about your spending. This kind of shame will cripple an economy faster than any mismanagement of funds on Wall Street. And this is only one shame that has popped up as a result of the economic shift; there are more.

We have all heard of Survivor's Guilt, the shame of being spared the ax when those we care about are let go. I think back to the three marble plaques on my classroom wall. I'm no expert on the afterlife (assuming there is one), but I can't imagine those three students who passed away are cursing the rest of us for still living. I have to believe that putting their picture on the wall instead of trying to pretend they never existed made them happy, where-ever they are. Why don't more companies do that? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to remember old co-workers fondly? Without guilt. Without having to erase them from our conversation just because they are erased from the books. And just as the old saying states, "Your real friends will accept you, and the rest don't matter," any former co-worker who was laid off, and a real friend, will want you to keep your job. If not, they don't matter. And a real friend wouldn't want you to freeze up at work out of shame. That would cause you do perform poorly, thereby joining your friend in unemployment.

Fun Shame "We just don't think that, with the economy in trouble, now is an appropriate time to be having a celebration, especially after we just laid off so many employees." Ever been to a New Orleans-style funeral? It is certainly as much celebration as it is grief. The dear departed do not, or should not, want you to go on suffering. How many times have you heard, "He would have wanted us to go on and be happy"? Americans have been convinced, or convinced themselves, that the appropriate response to the current crisis is to show everyone around us that we are just as worried as they are. It's like the bumper sticker that reads, "If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention." I think that is a load of crap. We are all fully aware of the world around us. The fact that we choose to not spend our days in absolute dread means we will not let the circumstances control us. No one ever accomplished anything while grieving, except go through day-to-day existence. That approach is certainly not going to get us out of trouble.

Working Shame If you aren't spending eighty hours a week at the office, you aren't helping us out of this mess. Great, you will have done the thing that results in the least productive employee, burn yourself out. A good boss right now should be monitoring anyone who is over-working out of Work Shame and sending him home. Frankly, you may work yourself to death and convince yourself that it helped save the business, but you won't have a family or a life to come home to when it is all said and done. Aren't they the reason you work in the first place?

America is a difficult country in which to be a citizen. We must balance life in the most precarious of circumstances. We have freedoms unheard of in many countries; and heavy responsibilities as a result of those freedoms. We have to make decisions that, in many countries, are left in the hands of the few. We have expectations placed on us because of the impact we have on others. Myriad challenges to our lifestyles and ways of thinking. A cultural melting pot that is constantly shifting our views on work, family, faith, and politics, especially given that our country allows its citizens to have such an impact on these qualities of life. These conditions have made us a thoughtful and hard-working people. We don't need to add shame on top of it, making life harder than it already is.

Let's lose the shame of living well and living happily. Times are tough, laugh anyway. People are struggling, celebrate anyway. If you've got it, you don't have to flaunt it, but you can still enjoy it without worrying about whether it is okay to have it. And let's stop feeling "lucky to just have a job" and instead feel proud to have skills that are important enough to be paid for. It doesn't matter if you are running the business or emptying the trash after the office is closed; don't put your life in a brown paper wrapper. After we're all out of this mess, we'll wonder what we were hiding.

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at 612-825-1832 or

No comments: