Shaming the Barista

I just did the worst thing. 


Starbucks has a new feature on their app called "Order (Beta)" by which one can choose their espresso drink and pay for it almost instantly online and then arriving at the coffee shop, simply pick it up and go about one's business.

I decided to try it out this morning. I ordered a reasonably complex drink and then set off for my neighborhood Starbucks, about 10 minutes by foot. So I got there and the drink was not waiting for me. The barista, a pleasant-looking young black man,  seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. 

"So you're not equipped to handle these online orders?" I asked.

"No, but we didn't get the order. I think you must have made a mistake." 

I made a mistake? He was blaming the victim! I wasn't going to tolerate it. 

I should add here that I am not usually a particularly aggressive person, and I am particularly gentle with people who work in retail and food services because I know their pay is crap and they are often belittled and ignored by their customers, particularly here in Greenwich, CT, home of many hedge fund managers and their wives, who parade around as though they are "Masters of the Universe" in the words of Tom Wolfe. Like any town, there are also a lot of nice people who are not particularly wealthy, and are content to be simply Citizens of the Universe.     

Also, I had had a rotten morning, and I had been struggling not to blow up at my wife. I had already shouted at the dog. 

"I made a mistake?" I asked rhetorically in a deceptively calm voice.  He had implied that I was an incompetent user of my cell phone app, a shaming statement and I was not going to tolerate it. In a fraction of a second I went into what Donald Nathanson calls "Attack Other" mode. I displaced my shame onto him, and effortlessly shifted the blame.

"I think you made a mistake!" I was posing as a Master of the Universe, a group I had often belittled, partly out of envy that they could afford to drive Teslas. 

"Did you order it at the wrong store?" he asked me.

"Putnam Plaza." I waved the cellphone at him.

"Did you complete the sale?"

"Of course I completed the sale!" I examined the interface more closely. I hadn't completed the sale.

"You're right," I said. "I haven't completed the sale. I owe you an apology. I suggested it was your fault but it was mine."

I waited for my, "Hey, that's okay broh," accompanied by a smile and perhaps a slap on the arm. He just stared at me. The apology had felt real--but had it sounded real? Or did he have ambivalent feelings about the Masters of the Universe too? 

I tried again. "I'm sorry if I was snarky." 


I felt awful.

I sighed and went on my way. Perhaps, I thought, if I record it in the shame diaries I'll feel a little better. An online confession.

A little better.


The Gift

(Spoiler alert!)

My older sister called me last week and ordered me to see The Gift.

"It's not great art," she said, lest I question her taste, "but you will find it of interest. I will say no more."

Because she is my older sister, I did as told.

A couple menaced by a stranger from his past 

A couple menaced by a stranger from his past 

And I did indeed find The Gift to be of interest. At the core of my research over the past decade has been the proposition that every act of violence is a way of managing shame. This is not a new idea. James Gilligan and others have written about it at length. Most of our better films and literature involve shame and its mismanagement (if it is well-managed, there is no story: He did something bad, he made amends, everyone went back to their quotidienne lives.)

In The Gift, Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman) are a well-to-do married couple trying to have a baby. While shopping, Simon is recognized by "Gordo," (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed) a classmate from high school, whom he scarcely recognizes after 20 years apart. We soon learn that Gordo was a "weirdo," one of those kids whose friendship might exile you from the social milieu.    

Simon wants nothing to do with this loser but Robyn, intuiting his sense of the tragic, invites him for dinner. In return he leaves a bottle of wine on their doorstep and, demonstrating his gift for the inappropriate, stocks their empty Koi pond with live fish. 

Who is this Gordo? A stalker in love with Robyn? A serial killer? Or simply autistic?

As the backstory unfolds, Robyn learns that Simon and a buddy bullied Gordo in high school. They made up a story that he had been discovered in a car, having sex with an older boy. Gordo's father, believing that his son was gay, attempted to kill him. Gordy, unable to handle the shame and notoriety, dropped out and became even more  marginalized, never graduating, piecing together a life by driving a limo and doing odd jobs.

Robyn and Simon fight about his treatment of Gordo. Robyn argues that he must apologize. After all, Gordo was nearly killed by his father.

"What's the big deal?" Gordon replies (or something to that nature.) And adds, with much pride: "My dad beat the crap out of me when I was a kid and I sucked it up."

Of course he didn't really suck it up. It may have seemed that because he did not complain about it he had somehow made it vanish. In actuality, he managed it by a defense that Donald Nathanson refers to as "attack other." He became a bully, and Gordo became one of his victims. The shame had passed, like a kind of poison, from father to son, from bully to victim.

Whenever there is a case of violence disproportionate to the offense, a boy bullied for no apparent reason, adults murdered indiscriminately by a rifle-wielding individual run amok, shame, denied or otherwise unrecognized, is the motivating factor.

The realistic treatment of the emotional interaction between three characters, acted with nuance and passion by a fine cast and director, make the Gift an important film and a pleasure to watch. 

The Great Healthy Shame Debate

Harriet Lerner, who wrote the excellent book, The Dance of Anger, was kind enough to read the manuscript for Beyond Bullying prior to publication. One of the points she took issue with was the idea of "healthy shaming." Shaming is never a good thing, she insisted.

I first came across the term in John Bradshaw's popular book, Healing the Shame that Binds You.

Just as there are two kinds of cholesterol, HDL (healthy) and LDL (toxic), so also are there two forms of shame: innate shame and toxic/life-destroying shame... The idea of shame as healthy seems foreign to English-speaking people because we have only one word for shame in English. To my knowledge, most other languages have at least two words for shame.

And he proceeds to list the two types of shame as they are labelled in other languages, pudeur and honte (French), scham and schande (German), etc. With all respect to Mr. Bradshaw, whose books have helped so many people find their way to sobriety, the fact that there are two forms for shame in other languages doesn't support the existence of good shame and bad shame. Pudeur refers to a sexual kind of shame, while honte refers to public disgrace. Neither feels good, although both could lead to an improvement in behavior. An example I use in my book is a young woman who tries to drive home after drinking too much, is arrested, spends the night in jail, and turns over a new leaf the next day. Such results are not uncommon. A night in the lock-up provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on one's behavior. 

The important question is not whether healthy shame or toxic shame exists linguistically but rather whether the shame is delivered in such a way that the person receiving it can benefit. In the case of a DUI, the officer (ideally) does his job without blaming or belittling the tipsy one. She doesn't need to defend herself because it is not an attack on her "self." She can manage the shame by changing her behavior in a positive way. 

John Braithwaite, a distinguished professor at the Australian National University, has written at length about healthy shaming, which he refers to as "reintegrative shaming." You can hear him talk about restorative justice and reintegrative shaming here.

Celebrities and Criminals

Celebrities and criminals are the last acceptable targets for shame displacement.

Marilyn Monroe, a celebrity who was adored but treated very, very badly.

Marilyn Monroe, a celebrity who was adored but treated very, very badly.

We can vilify, slander, demean and denigrate celebrities without bringing down the wrath of even the most adamant enforcer of political correctness. Celebrities are considered titanium shells that can withstand any amount of stonings without a dent because they are famous and wealthy and often good-looking. They have become objects rather than people. Marilyn Monroe expressed her sense of this when she said, "People talk to me if they they were talking to my clothes."

Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Constitution, and a doctor. He believed that punishment and incarceration only made people more likely to reoffend. 

Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Constitution, and a doctor. He believed that punishment and incarceration only made people more likely to reoffend. 

The other group undefended by the politically correct are criminals. We see this in the brutal way we treat offenders, our manner of plea-bargaining to free up courtrooms, our overcrowding of prisons and our use of solitary confinement, sometimes lasting for decades. Criminals are objects that that come down the assembly line damaged; it is cheaper and more expedient to throw them away than to try to repair them. While voices protesting our style of incarceration, punishment and retributive justice date back to Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signers of the constitution, they have begun to gain in number and loudness only recently.  

So this indifference to suffering of others occurs at both ends of the status ladder, the very top and the very bottom. It is a characteristic of Guilt-based societies. Shame-based societies are kinder to their celebrities and criminals. Consider this article from the Guardian, Why is Sweden Closing its Prisons? 



The Polish Carpenter Incident

These old 1 by 4s need replacing. 

These old 1 by 4s need replacing. 

Yesterday I called up a carpenter to get a quote on rebuilding the floor of the tiny terrace attached to our apartment. It's a small job--apparently too small for any carpenter to waste his time on it--consisting of cutting some pressure-treated 1" by 4" slats to 10 feet and then screwing them onto a couple of cross pieces. I could have done it myself except that I can't lift anything because of my bad back (which hasn't gotten any better from all this sitting at a desk and typing into a computer!) Anyway, the carpentar had an interesting accent, so I asked him

"Where are you from?"

"Poland," he said, "but my daughter just graduated college with a degree in microbiology."

This was probably the quickest shaming + shame management I had ever encountered, so I am reporting it here in the Shame Diaries. 

I had inadvertently shamed him by making him reveal that he was from Poland, a low status country, and he had regained his status by letting me know that his daughter had graduated college and gotten a degree in a branch of science that demanded more than a little brain-power. 

He said he'd send me an estimate and I haven't heard from him since.

I told my wife about this and she said, "You shouldn't have asked him about his accent. That's a personal question and none of your business." And then she added, "And there's nothing to be ashamed of in being Polish. You're part Polish. Did you tell him that?"

She shamed me in a healthy way. She considers me part of the high status group of Polite Elderly People, despite my frequent bad behavior, and she doesn't want me joining that low status group of People Who Always Say the Wrong Thing.

Of course in Poland people aren't ashamed of being Polish. But here in Southern Fairfield County, land of the Hedge Fund Managers, being an immigrant from any country EXCEPT Britain and France and Scandinavia is relatively low status, not to mention having a job that involves manual labor. 

The important term here is "relative." Status is always relative, and where there is high status and low status there is invariably shame. As Karl Mark wrote:

“A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirements for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position at all to maintain” (Karl Marx, “Wage Labour and Capital,” trans. Frederick Engels, Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1849).