Words by Professor Dr.Justin Thomas
Illustration by Alanoud Al Dawood
I’m a student of Arabic. So, when I hear a phrase being used a lot, I look it up. Native speakers of Arabic will be unsurprised to hear that one of the first expressions that had me reaching for my dictionary was ‘aib alayk’, given how heavily it is used in daily interactions across the Arab World.
The Hans Wher, a dictionary of modern written Arabic, informed me that this expression could best be translated into English as ‘shame on you’. The person receiving this rebuke will typically have broken some social rule, like not greeting a guest appropriately, or perhaps wearing an outfit that violates current conventions.
Psychology tells us that shame is one of the ‘moral emotions’ — it is frequently used as a form of punishment or behavioural control — and it can be very painful to experience. Shame tends to make us just want to vanish; we hope for the world to open up and swallow us whole. Psychologists generally agree that shame leads to overthinking, negative self-evaluations and social withdrawal. In large, unhealthy doses it is even associated with anxiety and depression, by virtue of shame’s negative impact on how we see ourselves.
If breaking social rules is at the heart of shame or aib, it follows that societies with lots of social rules and etiquettes should have higher levels of shame and social anxiety. This idea has been termed the ‘Stringent Norms Hypothesis’. The general argument is that collectivist societies value harmony and fitting in, whereas individualist societies give more weight to personal achievement and standing out.
“Psychologists generally agree that shame leads to overthinking, negative self-evaluations and social withdrawal. In large, unhealthy doses it is even associated with anxiety and depression.”
One way to achieve harmony, it is argued, is to have lots of social rules. There is evidence supporting this idea. For example, research comparing North American (individualist) and East Asian societies Japan and Korea (collectivist), supports the Stringent Norms Hypothesis, with higher levels of social anxiety and social rules reported within the collectivist block. Individualistic societies tend to have fewer social rules, and generally live in smaller groups—the smaller the group the easier it is to harmonize.
Like East Asian nations, Arabian Gulf societies have a relatively large number of rules governing social interaction. There are clear rules rooted in both Islamic and Bedouin traditions that dictate many aspects of social intercourse. There are rules about who should initiate a greeting, and what form the greeting and response should take. There are even rules about serving Arabic coffee. For example, filling a guest’s cup beyond or below a certain point can be viewed as rude.
Furthermore, there are prescribed verbal pronouncements and responses for countless social interactions. For example, upon hearing someone has returned from a journey, one should say: al-hamdulillah ‘ala al-salaama (praise God for your safety). Or upon hearing someone has recently been bereaved, the appropriate thing to say is adham Allah ajrukum (may God make your reward greater). Not knowing the etiquette or purposefully breaking these social rules is likely to elicit pronouncements of aib.
“A world without social rules—without aib—would be chaotic and unpredictable.”
If we had no social rules, there would be none to break, and there would be no aib. But without any social rules at all, how could we live together harmoniously? Without any social rules we would have no guidance on how to act in social situations, nor would we have any idea about what to expect from others in return.
A world without social rules—without aib—would be chaotic and unpredictable. In social interactions, we would act exactly how we wanted, when we wanted and so would everyone else, without any need for politeness. This would be a world of hyperindividualism, where the goals and preferences of the individual would be all that mattered. There would be no us, just I.
The question then, is not rules or no rules, but rather how many rules and which ones are really important? We might also consider that the punishment for breaking a minor social rule should fit the crime; shaming people seems a bit harsh to me. A gentle non-judgmental reminder would be less likely to lead to psychological damage.
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Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is an author and British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University. He has lived in the UAE for over 12 years.