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Littering, Culture, Guilt, and Shame

Guilt and Shame Mechanisms for Cultural Adhesion “Hola familia!” spoke a friend as she quickly overtook my wife, baby, and I in the streets of San Cristobal. We returned the greeting. Our friend was carrying an old oil jug, a water bottle, and a styrofoam cup awkwardly held out from her body at arm’s length. [...]

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Guilt and Shame Mechanisms for Cultural Adhesion

“Hola familia!” spoke a friend as she quickly overtook my wife, baby, and I in the streets of San Cristobal.

We returned the greeting. Our friend was carrying an old oil jug, a water bottle, and a styrofoam cup awkwardly held out from her body at arm’s length. All of the above items were caked in mud and were actively dripping some sort of brown slimy substance. We went on talking as my friend continued carrying these putrid articles as though they were nothing to notice, as though she carries handfuls of old muddy bottles around with her every day.

Finally, I had enough: “What are you doing!?!” I exclaimed, referring to the muddy garbage in her hands.

“Oh, it’s from the river. Yesterday, I accidentally dropped a plastic cup in the river,” she replied matter of factly, as though the jump of logic was obvious.

Oddly, I understood. We are both Americans, she was speaking the lingo of our country.

“So you are making up for littering yesterday by removing these three pieces of garbage from the river today?”


“Do you think it works like that?” she asked innocently.

“Three for one, mathematically it works out,” I had to respond.

Garbage from the river placed in a trash bag

For some reason, my friend’s act did not seem overtly strange to me, although it probably should have in the context of southern Mexico — a place where river is often a synonym for trash dump. In point, my friend is from the USA, a culture that now frowns greatly on littering — so much so that the act of dropping a single gum wrapper upon the ground often feels so very wrong that the litterer feels compelled to make up for it by cleaning beaches, scrubbing oil soot off of sea gulls . . .

Americans at home and abroad tend to feel guilt — a touch of shame, perhaps — for littering, even if the amount is small or the place is already a trash heap. The little voice of guilt often raises its head after chucking a piece of trash into the street. I must admit that I, too, have heard this little voice on multiple occasions after letting some wrapper or piece of garbage go free to join its brethren in a litter strew landscape.

Where does this voice come from? What the hell is it? Why do I hear it when I think I shouldn’t?

Logically, I know that it is convention in some countries to just chuck small pieces of trash in the streets. Often there are none or very few public trash cans in these places. In Haiti, everybody just throws their trash in the streets all day long and then entire cities and villages mobilize in the morning to clean it all up (perhaps to ensure that there is room enough on the streets to litter again another day). In point, some cultures in some countries have mechanisms — or a pan-cultural lack of a mechanism — for dealing with litter. Mostly, people seem to just look away, or they complain about the trash only to contribute their own garbage to the piles. It is normal in most countries to just toss your publicly acquired garbage into the streets: it is just the way that it is.

I know this, so why do I feel so odd littering?

Why would an American girl feel so bad about accidentally dropping a plastic cup that she would climb down into a garbage strewn, mucky Mexican river to personally remove three pieces of hideous looking garbage from the mud by hand?

That, sir, is culture.

The acculturation process of any society often involves embedding a code of right and wrong into its members. This acculturation will often remain with us for the rest of our lives. It takes a mighty big stick, for sure, to beat the culture out of someone — and I highly doubt the chance of success if attempted. Part of this acculturation involves the provocation of guilt or shame when we violate our cultural codes.

Few people would look twice here in Mexico if they saw my friend loosing a disposable cup to the river. They would probably help her cause by throwing overboard any shrivel of trash they had with them too. But my friend obviously felt guilty about it: she violated the code of her culture.

When this happens there is often a knee jerk reaction of guilt. She surely felt it.

It is my impression that cultures are kept in tact by such feelings of guilt and shame. Culture is not a set of behavioral and thought responses the come from the logical capacities of our brains — it is much deeper than that. I, logically, often see nothing wrong with littering in many places, I will even tell people do to it, but when I litter it  it simply feels wrong. I try to combat the feeling with logic, with argument — “I just walked ten city blocks without seeing one single trash can, this place demands that I toss my garbage in the streets!” –but the feeling of guilt and shame always wins. I often return to my room at the end of the day with my pockets bulging with trash.

Culture is a set of behavior and thought patterns enforced by the twin emotions guilt and shame. This is, perhaps, what holds the fabric of many societies together, and the more established, interwoven, old, coherent, and systematic a society is, the more guilt and shame its members seem to feel on a regular basis. I must mention China, Japan, India here — though the meat of guilt in these places is often for things other than littering.

Only decrepit, brutalized, disoriented, modern, or decimated cultures lack strong mechanisms of guilt or shame.

Religions like Christianity and Islam set out to rule the world — and have so far been pretty successful — on exercising the emotions of guilt and shame within their members. It has been said that Zoroastrianism was easily replaced by Islam because it lacked a rigid moral code and a hard line of practice. Even traditionally Buddhist countries like China and Japan needed the guilt riddling capacities of Confucianism and Shintoism to hold their societies together. In Latin America, the moral code of Catholicism was spread over the region, and this stringent ideology is currently being one up on a massive level by the even more rigid ideology of Evangelicalism. As we speak, fundamentalist Islam is currently gaining popularity in even very secular Islamic countries.

I believe firmly that cultures function more or less like mass biological entities, and a culture will select behavioral traits that best serve its interests as a whole. In this world, humans and cultures as a whole tend to select modes of living that provide a strict moral code, that provoke guilt in its members — perhaps as an element of group cohesion and control.

It is my impression that these stringent forms of faith hit the nail of human cultural biology on the head: humans are predisposed to being controlled by their own sense of guilt, we are never more enslaved than when we enslave ourselves.

Flowers in Mexico

As I think of my friend digging in the mud of a litter strewn river to assuage her guilt, I must conclude that perhaps the feelings of guilt and shame evolved with cultures forming coded mechanism to trigger them; perhaps culture evolved to make good use of the human capacity to feel guilt and shame.

This guilt mechanism, perhaps, makes cultures strong.

It at least keeps streets clean in some parts of the world.


Filed under: Culture and Society, Mexico, North America

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3689 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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3 comments… add one

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  • Sam November 27, 2010, 9:21 pm

    Right on. The amount of littering I’ve noticed while traveling was astounding to me. It still annoys me when I see locals casually throwing their plastic bags or bottles into the street. I just have to accept that it’s the way things are done here even though it will never quite sit right with me.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 28, 2010, 6:00 pm

      It is a different cultural perception, for sure. It is sometimes hard to accept local ways when they go against your acculturation, logic, common sense, and diminishes your enjoyment of the surroundings. Don’t worry man, this will never sit right with you. Me neither.

      As a friend once yelled at a cashier in Hangzhou who tried to force a plastic bag on him: “China! This is our world too!”

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  • Jazinda Machache July 4, 2011, 3:44 pm

    I agree that these are cultural acts. In Africa it is not uncommon to see food wrappers and take away food containers flying our from moving buses and cars. It is culturally acceptable. I may find it disgusting but its not a lone man war. What gives such differing tolerance to different races/culture. In my country in Zimbabwe, litter is thrown even as the sweeper has passed the area and is a few maters away from where she has cleaned. Its a sad state of things.

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