When does showing vulnerability constitute a norm violation? And what are the consequences?
Last week I was pondering if everyday people like you and me have the space to be publicly vulnerable, or if that was only the purview of people like Will Smith. I was referring to how Will was doing the talk show rounds for his new book, sharing his deep shame about not standing up for his mom against his abusive dad. (CNN)
Then the Oscars hit. Literally.
That’s when Will’s bare, naked, vulnerability crossed the line into a norm violation. The norm being you don’t walk on stage during the Oscars and slap the presenter. That was not okay, and there will be ripples, if not repercussions. But will they make a difference?
Probably not in any concrete (aka money) way. He might get kicked out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, won’t lose his Oscar, and will still make money at the box office.
But what about the rest of us?
In the US American workplace there’s a Darwinian favoritism for leaders who maintain an emotional even keel. Women are judged more harshly for expressing emotion—for men it’s bold, for women it’s weakness. And you can’t un-blow the horn or get all the down feathers back into the jacket lining once you’ve exposed them.
Living authentically may be empowering—even courageous, as Brene Brown preaches. But for us everyday mortals, we may want to keep an eye on the big picture. Or hold onto the power in sharing a failure or weakness or shame AFTER you’ve recovered—so you have the perspective of the lesson learned.
Or move to another country. Recognizing your own vulnerability is the private part. It’s how you manifest it in action, in the context of your culture’s cultural norms, that is at issue.
Cultural Views of Norm Violations
“Although the existence of social norms is universal across all human cultures, there are large differences around the globe in adherence to social norms and the punishment of norm violators,” says Michele Gelfund in her study, Differences Between Tight and Loose Cultures: A 33-Nation Study (science.org) “With data from 33 nations, we illustrate the differences between cultures that are tight (have many strong norms and a low tolerance of deviant behavior) versus loose (have weak social norms and a high tolerance of deviant behavior).”
The good news in this context is that the US is the loosest of the loose, so there is more freedom of expression here, even if there are variations for that by gender, race or ethnicity.
Individualistic vs Collective Societies on Expressions of Anger
The other “pro” side that supports expression of vulnerability in the US is our individualistic nature. But here’s a big distinction. Vulnerability has two sides: anger and shame. Individualistic societies encourage expressions of anger. But they discourage expressions of shame. (Boiger, et al) Meaning that when something goes wrong, if your natural reaction is to blame yourself—you might want to hold onto expressing that until you are able to see the full picture and get mad at someone.
Balancing the wallowing with the anger may be where the distance, or lesson learned can come in. Then sharing vulnerability may shift to a point of service, where there is a lesson to be learned to help others.
Where do you fall on the sharing not sharing continuum?
Leslie Berliant, my guest on today’s Intercultural Spark, advocates for writing about your most humiliating moments as the way to find your deeper voice. I’m still not sure.
Perhaps this reiterative four-step approach to personal vulnerability is helpful: Own it. Forgive it. Correct it. Move on. The “forgive it” is both yourself for your shortcoming, or the other person, if you feel you’ve been wronged. This process could take 4 minutes or four years. Or ten, or longer. Nowhere does it include “announce it publicly.”
We control what we share. We (for the most part) know the social norms for at least our culture, or at least within our sphere of influence. Is there such a thing as “Be Brave. Carefully?”