Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Public Shaming

Recently, I made my long journey from San Antonio to Toronto, which included 2 stopovers in Denver and Minneapolis/St. Paul. The flights and stops were uneventful and surprisingly all my flights were on time! (I flew United & Air Canada.) During my stops, I tried calling my g-f, but no answer. She was home sleeping! Lucky woman.

Anyway, at the Pearson Airport in Toronto, we needed to take a shuttle bus to the terminal. When I got on the bus, I saw this a "I'm-too-cool" teen girl (17 or 18) chatting on her cell & sitting with her feet crossed over the seat next to her. She was implicitly communicating she did not want anyone sitting by her. She was quite pretty, brunette, & thin.

When I walked in the bus, I saw an open seat, but decided to stand. I'd been sitting on my tired ass for 12 hours, so I figure I could do with a little standing. The bus eventually began to fill and the seats were swallowed up, except one. As the bus began to move, I soon heard the girl talking very loudly to a 30-something woman a few feet from her. The teen was defiantly telling the woman, "He can sit here if you wants to. I'm not stopping him." She was referring to this older gentleman, who was at least 70. He looked over toward her (and the seat he desired), but turned away in dismay. I couldn't see clearly because of the people partially blocking my view, but I think the teen still had her knee protruding on the seat next to her. Apparently, this was "preventing" the older gent from sitting on the seat.

This argument went back & forth for a short bit. But then this guy (late 20s/early 30s, short hair, & glasses) who was close to the teen, leaned into her and gave her this "death stare." She was obviously threatened by it. She raised her voice and yelled something like, "Why are you staring at me like that? Are you gonna hit me?!" The young man gently pulled back. The older man again looked at the girl (or was he coveting that seat?), but again turned away in disgust.

This then became the gossip in the terminal. I overhead a few people talk about it in hushed words: "Did you see what happened with that girl?" "Man, she was pissed." My curiosity was also peaked because I had just witnessed something I hadn't seen in a long time: a good old fashioned public shaming. The girl was trying to be nonchalant about the affair. She told her cell-friend, "Actually, I find it [the stare] rather funny." Funny? I wondered.

Well, about 10 minutes later (Customs was surprisingly fast!...I better count my cross-border's not always like this), she was pacing the baggage claim area and still chatting on her cell. This time, though, she was saying things like, "That's really bugging me." Ah yes, the shaming effect of the stare had taken hold. It was interesting to note that her reaction was one of "fight" or dominance rather than submission. Now this behavior may be the expression of a confident & assertive girl, or alternatively, an arrogant & aggressive lass.

At the time of the shaming, I felt myself siding with the older man and the 2 other people confronting the girl. After all, she did take up the 2 seats "as if" they both belonged to her. But after I observed her reaction in the terminal, I started feeling sympathetic toward her. Did she deserve to be shamed like that? Couldn't the old man just have asked her if he could sit next to her? The shuttle bus etiquette, which was written in the bus, is that young people should give up their seats to older people. Perhaps the older man didn't believe he needed to ask. that the responsibility was hers to offer up the seat. It was a difficult situation to ascribe blame and responsibility, but I'm willing to bet if the older man simply said, "May I sit here?", she would have moved her legs from it.

At baggage claim w hen she picked up her rather large suitcase (she prolly went shopping that weekend at the Mall of America), she looked at the people around her with a smile on her face. It was like she was trying to elicit positive responses from others to counteract the shame. When she turned to me, looking out from under by cowboy hat, I smiled weakly. You have to remember, I was dead tired...only 4 hours sleep before my 12-hour ordeal. I felt a small urge to say something positive and encouraging, but my mind was too sluggish to articulate exactly what I would say.

This incident was interesting from a social moral perspective, as well as a psychological viewpoint. It reminded me of the emotional power of being shamed. Paul Gilbert, a evolutionary psychologist and cognitive therapist who teaches compassionate mind therapy, talks about how indelible shaming experiences can be. Even a single shaming experience can have a powerful, long-lasting (or even life-long) impact. Gilbert gives examples of people remembering solitary shaming experiences decades after they happened. He also referenced an article by Baumeister et al. (2001) entitled "Bad is stronger than good," which discusses how we have more processing systems in the brain for handling threats than dealing with positive experiences. (I plan to read it.) Will this girl ever forget this experience? I've blogged it, so I know I won't. :-)