Lesson From London: Shamed in a Club

18/07/2011 15:23 BST | Updated 17/09/2011 10:12 BST

There still are places in Western Civilization where you can be shamed, quite literally.

One benefit of living in a culture based on individuality is the relative lack of shameful experiences. Certainly we have guilt. Every day most of us do something we are not proud of -- perhaps only an unkind or selfish thought -- but rarely in our average America lives in do we fear that our society will look down on us in shame.

Recently I lunched with friends at a London club. One of them was an educated member of the British establishment. He must have known the rules. And no one could miss the prominent signs banning cell phones and such contraband as laptops and financial newspapers. I sat primly in my conservative suit and tried not to speak loudly or laugh.

Abruptly and for no apparent reason, our British companion pulled out a cell phone. The room was deadly quiet. I got nervous. He pushed a few buttons. What relief! At least he wasn't making a call. He turned the phone to show us something he thought was cute. Oh dear, this might not turn out well. His grandchildren's cat "app".

The phone purred quietly. Then yikes! The unthinkable happened. A little screeching sound jumped from the cat into the ears of all in the room -- including that of an English gentleman entertaining guests nearby.

Once again the cat-phone screeched. Things stirred at the next table. "Clubnub", as I'll call our neighbor, had been pushed too far. He turned, and using his fiercest language said to us, "For shame!"

Clubnub's words surprised me. I'm convinced few Americans would put it that way. We'd ignore the intrusion for a minute and then say something like, "Hey, stop that! Didn't you see the sign?" But in the mind of this Brit, our infraction was worthy of harsher condemnation -- not just of the action, but of our character.

Notwithstanding the fact that Clubnub's outburst created more of a scene than the electronic kitty (what did his Japanese guests think, I wonder?), his words came back to me for days and to a small degree flavored the remainder of my visit. Although innocent, I actually felt a bit of shame.

After my first trip to Asia as a teen, I read and began to understand how an individual could feel as if their behavior disgraced or honored their whole society. Born in America, this was a strange concept at first. Later, I discovered that the fear of shame is a life-driving force in my Middle Eastern friends. Behaviors that seem unwise or odd to me make sense when I remember that being shamed is perhaps the worst fate of all.

Shame is more than a feeling. In some cultures, being shamed gets you outcast status and brands you as legitimate prey for others. In a bizarre twist, the evils done to outcasts -- robbery, rape, deprivation, battery -- accrue not to the perpetrator, but to the victim or their fate. "They deserve it," is said.

Looking back, I'm glad for a small taste of what people in some cultures fear daily. I may have disliked the sensation of being shamed in a London Club, but at least no physical harm went with it -- that would have been against the rules.