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Loren Rosson III

My thanks to Daphne Chang for her observations. I should clarify that my remarks about acceptable behavior patterns in shame-based cultures was not the full story, only that they don't qualify as a list of "dirty dozen" in the same contexts as in the western world, and indeed can be very honorable behaviors in the right circumstances. Certainly they are not acceptable when directed at friends, family, and "insiders" (as you note regarding "outsiders"). But in the work environment colleagues are often seen as rivals and competitors. Bringing social class into the picture adds a spin, because in agrarian societies each social class operated out of its own code of honor-shame; i.e. from the peasant point of view, wealth was thievery and dishonorable, but to elites wealth was (naturally) a sign of honor. You note that "insults are not fine" because "one needs to be careful not to shame others' 'face'". That's part of the whole point. Politeness is extremely important in shame-based cultures, and when politeness fails, honor gets defended in ways which are often unacceptable to western people. Lies and deceptions, for instance, are very honorable strategies.

Regarding generalizing about cultures (in response to Bob). People can deviate from their cultural conditioning and manipulate it to their advantage, but more often they don't, especially in shame-based collectivist cultures where public perception is everything. It is possible to generalize about cultures, but the problem is that when not done carefully, it smacks of racial profiling or a willful ignorance of human diversity. My remarks, unfortunately, may have come across that way.

Bob Sutton

My Stanford colleague and friend Daphne Chang -- and librarian -- has a different perspective on the meaning of being an asshole in Asian cultures, and as she grew-up in the Chinese culture, I think it is important to read, as it is much different that Loren suggested:

"At least for Chinese culture, insults are not fine. One needs to be careful not to shame others’ ‘face’. Some witty insults (and backhanded compliments) get praised by everyone only because the statements were used to avenge injustice. Public degradation is not a staple of life for the same reason. (Self-degradation in public is good – it is a polite way to show humbleness) Belligerence is not commendable. In the past, because social class was the norm, the higher classes tended to be arrogant and expected the lower classes to follow their orders. The lower classes accepted the social norm. Nowadays, followers might prefer their leaders to be tough to ‘outsiders’, but not belligerent to themselves. "Treating others as if they are invisible" is not an issue often times for the reason that others prefer not to draw attentions in some social occasions. In the reciprocal culture (guanxi), if one does not reciprocate favors because one treats others as they are invisible, this person will be an outcast to the society.

I agree that the definition for an asshole could be slightly different across cultures, but he should not make such an assertion without evidence."

Daphne, thanks so much, and it seems to me you have a point, and more generally, making generalizations about other cultures can be a risky thing! And I think you make a compelling argument that public degradation is not a staple of life in Chinese culture.

Bob Sutton


First, thanks again for your amazing review -- it was nice that it was nice, but the insights really struck me. As for the "one" vs "no asshole" rule, I got a copy of that complete paper and reading it, first it is clear that when the group is small and tight cooperation and interdependence is required with the nasty person, that the poisoning is hard to avoid. But there are many realms in life where it is possible to just work alongside someone and only have occasional contact. And the other thing has to do with the power of the asshole -- if the "bad" person is held up as a cautionary tale and viewed as low status, then I think the one asshole rule works, given research on deviance and psychological contrast. Also, I think it is oversimplified to say that there are assholes and everyone else. The most interesting cases are places where there are general norms against being a jerk, but since everyone blows it now and then, the key is what happens when there is a transgression by a generally good and respected person -- so I have some good examples from SuccessFactors along these lines.

I look forward to seeing your next post!

Loren Rosson III

Bob, thanks for this. I noticed your post in which you second-guess the one asshole rule; I could go either way on this myself. I've seen minor cases where it works but one case where it definitely didn't. But more on this (on my blog) later this week.

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