The Language of Shame

Last week I did something I hadn’t done before. I was picking up my boys from school and couldn’t find a parking spot… so I parked over a crosswalk. The children from the school use this to cross the road, so the school asks us not to park over it. I knew that. But I was late and I justified it in my mind.

By: Aaron

As I walked up to the school gate a grandfather was waiting for me… with guns loaded. He proceeded to yell at me, accuse me of wanting every child at the school dead (yes, he did say that), arrogance, being a law-breaker, the list continues. I ignored his tone and words. I knew I was wrong so I immediately apologised and said I would move my car as soon as I collected my boys. But he kept going. And going. I physically moved away from him. He followed me and kept at it. My self-control was gold-medal worthy, I didn’t loose my temper with him!

When I got home, I was still calming down when my oldest son began his own gold medal performance in attitude, back talk and sarcasm. I sent him to his room. Not because he deserved it but to protect him from me. I contemplated how to respond to him. His attitude was so bad, I was at a complete loss of what to do.

As I rehearsed all the possible scripts in my mind a realisation came to me: I was planning to do to my son, exactly what the grandfather had done to me. I was about to shame him like the man had sought to shame me. I would have done it differently but the roots are the same.

In this process I identified 5 ways we can communicate which produces shame. This applies to parenting, marriage, friendship, even work relationships.

Consider if you do any of the following when you communicate:

1. Rhetorical Questions:

Phrases like, “How could you?!”, “Don’t you care?”, and “What were you thinking?” are not said because they want answers. They corner people and heap guilt, with no way of escape. Rhetorical questions heap shame because they don’t need answers, they are statements of guilt. Rhetorical questions judges motives and finds them guilty as charged.

This style of communication says, not only are your actions worthy of shame but so are your motives. What was I planning to say to my son? “Don’t you have any respect for Mommy?”  Ouch. So quickly said but the shame will linger for days with no way out for him.

2. Generalisations:

The grandfather made so many generalisations about me, “You obviously don’t care about a single child in this school.”  Ouch. It really did hurt me because I do care about the children. He took a small action and made a blanket statement about me, my values and my love for others. This is wounding and shame-producing. I could say to my son, “Your tone of voice shows you aren’t being loving to anyone in this family today”  Really?! Never, ever generalise with anyone, ever.

3.  One-way communication:

Want to produce shame in someone? Talk a lot, talk over them, don’t truly listen. When they are replying, use that time to think of what you will say next. All of these communicate that I don’t truly value you because I don’t value what you have to say. Thus, shame increases.

4. Tone & Body Language:

This is something that doesn’t get talked about enough. When we communicate, what is our tone of voice and body language? I think it is so interesting that the Bible says, “Speak the truth in love” not “speak the truth”.  This tells me that it doesn’t just matter what I say, it matters how I say it. It doesn’t just matter that I say what is true… how I say it matters so much.

5. Be Relentless:

Are we interested in making a point or making a difference in the situation? The grandfather was only interested in making a point. But in our communication, we should be interested in making a difference.  People pick up immediately which one we are after. Relentless communication may help us make a point but what else have we lost in the process?

Back to my son. I dodged a bullet that day to be honest. I ended up taking a chair in to his room, sat next to his bed and said, “Son, I love you and I know this is not you. I honestly don’t know what to say. I’m at a loss for words because you’ve never treated me this way. What is going on?” I was truthful and truly wanted to hear from him. He listened, it was silent for a minute and then came a torrent of heaving sobs… he had been bullied at school that day.

How many times have I missed truly hearing from someone because I used shame based communication? Shame says, hide yourself, don’t be seen because it’s not worth being seen.

Loving communication says, no matter what I see in you, it’s safe and I want to hear it.