Quotations of Note: Geoffrey White on the A’ara word for shame




‘The A’ara word for shame, mamaja, is polysemous: used to signify both the feeling of shame and to refer to genitalia. There is clearly some connection between these senses of the term, because public exposure of one’s genitals is an immediate cause of shame. Yet, interpreting the A’ara notion of mamaja on the basis of this sort of scenario would miss the most important or culturally salient meanings of the term. Rather than signifying an internal feeling of discomfort evoked by an exposure of the self or by a violation of societal standards of comportment, mamaja is fundamentally about social relations. Fleshing out a bit what is meant by “fundamentally about social relations” provides an example of the type of cultural model of emotions associated with interpersonal selves. Mamaja is typically evoked in situations in which a person behaves in a way that breaches or upsets an important or valued social relation. In such situations, both parties are likely to report feeling shame (or, more correctly, being shamed). The prototypic context for eliciting or experiencing shame is the violation of expectations surrounding the sharing or non-sharing of food. Food is a symbol of social relationships. To give or exchange food is to affirm the value of enduring relations. To move about with ease and share food is to not feel shame, to feel constricted and observant of the proper distance or respect associated with a relationship is to feel shame.


The close proximity of mamaja (be shamed) and di ‘a nagnafa (be sad, literally, bad heart) in Figure 1 reflects the similarity of the event schemas that underlie their meaning. To oversimplify, both are associated with moral transgressions between the self and another person with whom the self is in an important, valued relation. Unlike “be angry” (di’a tagna), which is ideally not expressed between closely related people and which implies some form of rupture or break in the relationship, both mamaja and di’a nagnafa pertain to close relations in need of repair. In the logic of emotional meaning for these terms, it is the state of the relation between two persons that is the object of prediction, not the individual and not two individuals. Talk of mamaja constitutes a kind of relational calculus that works to calibrate or mark intersubjective distance and boundaries in social relations.’



 – Geoffrey M. White 1994, ‘Affecting Culture: Emotion and Morality in Everyday Life’ (in) Kitayama, S. & Markus, H. R. (eds) Emotion and Culture: Empirical studies of mutual influence, American Psychological Association, Washington DC, pp. 219-239.





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