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Don't Publicize Family Disgrace


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Have you ever talked badly about your family to others? There's a Chinese saying that goes,

"Do not talk about family disgrace outside the family."

(In Chinese: 家醜不可外揚)

 

The first time I heard this, it really intrigued me. In western culture, it seems quite normal for people to complain about their family towards others. What's the big deal? Everyone has family troubles, and it's human sentiment to want to rant to some friends once in a while, right? Is it just that family politics is more troublesome in Chinese culture? Or is there something deeper I'm not understanding here?



A Friend's Experience

Recently, a friend shared a story that helped me understand this saying deeper. Let's call this friend Mary. Mary's younger brother was having some conflict with their parents, and he confided in her. He also asked her to not tell their parents what he said. But out of care for her brother, she still spoke up for him to their parents. Later, his brother was actually thankful that his sister argued for him.

 

Another time, Mary's cousin (let's call her Ella) was having trouble with her parents, and Ella confided in Mary and also asked her to not share with others. Again, Mary, out of care for her cousin, spoke to Ella's dad. He then knew that his daughter "spread family disgrace outside the immediate family" and got upset at Ella, and Ella got upset at Mary. Mary was quite surprised by the difference in outcome as compared to her brother's situation.

 

I suddenly had a realization: the reason we shouldn't spread family disgrace outside the family is because it is a private matter that should be resolved within the family, and we don't want other people sharing our private matters to others without our permission.

 


If we extend this idea broader, it applies to other relationships too, whether it be friends or colleagues. If I have a conflict with someone, I want that person to solve that conflict with me, and I don't want that person to go around talking about our conflict with other people because they will likely skew the real situation to make me seem worse than I truly am.

 

Mary's brother and parents didn't get upset at her because they are all part of the same immediate family. Her brother was happy that she helped him communicate, and her parents are happy to see the older sister showing care for the younger brother.

 

Her cousin is technically part of a different (immediate) family. Her uncle was upset that Ella would say bad things about him towards someone outside the immediate family, thereby hurting his reputation. So what could have Mary done instead?

 


Well, the fact that Ella confided in her shows that Ella has trust towards her, and that's a good thing. It's fine for Mary to listen to Ella complain, and Mary can give Ella advice. But she shouldn't let Ella's dad know that Ella complained about him. She could try chatting with Ella's dad and ask questions that would make him talk about those troubles mentioned by Ella, then she can say things like, "Well, if I were your daughter, I might think…". This way, Ella's dad doesn't know that his daughter talked to Mary, but Mary still achieved the objective of speaking up for Ella.

 

In fact, this method could even be used for Mary's brother. The difference is that she doesn't have to use this method for her brother since they are part of the same family, but maintaining anonymity is definitely needed if not part of the same family.


This principle can be extended: people in the same organization can talk about the problems of the organization (with the purpose of improving the organization of course; not purely for complaining), but they shouldn't go around saying bad things about the organization to outsiders.


Another Reason

The Analects of Confucius speaks of a story: one time, the Duke of She told Confucius, "My village has a very upright person. His father stole a sheep, and he reported him." Confucius replied, "The upright people in my village are different: parents conceal the faults of children, and children conceal the faults of parents; uprightness is found within this."

 

(Original Text: 葉公語孔子曰:「吾黨有直躬者,其父攘羊,而子證之。」孔子曰:「吾黨之直者異於是。父為子隱,子為父隱,直在其中矣。」)

 

If we think about it, family members are the closest people to us. For the vast majority of people, family are the most loving people towards us, certainly more so than those outside the family. If we spread the faults of our family members, the people we should love and respect the most, then what does that say about our character? Doesn't that say we are the type of person that focuses on grudges instead of gratitude? That takes people's love and contributions for granted?



I often advise others: If you want to know a person's true character, observe how they treat and talk about their parents. This is based on the Chinese idiom,

"Of all the virtues, filial piety is the first."

(In Chinese: 百善孝為先) 


If a person doesn't even respect or appreciate their parents, who gave the most to them, then how can they truly respect or appreciate other people? A non-filial person would only treat someone nice if there is benefit for themselves. If you cannot help them, or if there's a conflict of interest, then they won't respect you anymore.

 

Going back to the idea of "don't spread family disgrace outside the family", if we talk about family disgrace towards others, not only will people have a bad impression of our family members, they will also have a bad impression on us. Moreover, if we truly love and respect our family, we would feel bad when others have a bad impression towards our family.

 

I remember hearing a story about a person whose brother was an alcoholic. His neighbors would say things like, "What a shame your brother is such a good-for-nothing." He would reply, "Don't say bad things about my brothers. Don't ruin our brotherhood." This shows that he is a person who focuses on other people's gratitude and good points. I can confidently guess that he'd try to advise his brother in private, but he wouldn't say bad things about him in public. I'd certainly rather make friends with him than someone who complains about family members.


Focus on Essence Not Form

By this point, there's probably a big question you might have: "Does this mean I cannot talk about the faults of my family members to anyone outside the family ever?!"



If you have this question, that's great. My mentor often says that when we learn things, we have to understand the essence or principle of the teaching, and we shouldn't be overly stiff about the appearance or form. The essence of not spreading family disgrace to others is

  1. Respect people's private matters

  2. Protect people's reputation and sense of self-respect

By doing this, we also protect our own reputation, but that is a side effect, not the main objective.

 

Therefore, it is OK to talk about your family problems with someone if your intention is to seek help for resolving the conflict. For example, I often talk about my family problems towards my mentor and wise friends. I trust that they will not share with others, and we discuss how I can solve the conflict effectively. But if I am simply ranting to friends, that's not great.

 

I know it's human sentiment to want to rant about our troubles towards friends, but that doesn't mean it is a good thing to do. Put yourself in the shoes of the listener. When someone dumps a ton of emotional baggage on you, how do you feel? Probably worse than before. Plus, it's a huge use of time! And as the person who ranted, have you gotten closer to solving the problem by ranting?



Even if ranting makes us feel better afterwards, that doesn't mean we have to rely on ranting. We could use other methods that don't exhaust other people's time or make them feel worse, such as watching a feel-good movie, exercising, or doing some breathing meditation. However, I know we sometimes just start ranting without even meaning to. I've done that too. When that happens, we can simply apologize for ranting and steer the topic towards finding a solution, and then thank them for their help.

 

But if others rant to us, we shouldn't start criticizing them for ranting. After all, they are already in a bad mood. To criticize them while they are in a bad mood would make them feel worse, and it means we are not sensitive to other people's feelings. We can listen and try to guide them towards finding a solution. When they are in a better mood, we can encourage them to change from a problem-talker to a problem-solver.

 

Back to the topic of not spreading family disgrace…it's not great to rant to friends, and it's even worse to talk about family disgrace in a public setting. I remember reading about a celebrity in a magazine, and he talked about the abuse that his parents gave him during his childhood.


At the time, I didn't think much of it, but now, I can see why some people would think that's very inappropriate. You can communicate with your family members in private about your feelings of resentment towards their past actions, but you don't need to share that with the media and the public. That doesn't help anyone, and it might encourage others to complain about their family instead of thinking about their family's gratitude and love.


One More Story

I remember in a class one time, a classmate (let's call her Jenny) shared some bad behavior of her parents. Later, I was chatting with some other classmates, and they said Jenny shouldn't talk about her parents like that in front of the class. I was really confused and thought Jenny's behavior was fine.



I said, "But Jenny is sharing her situation to ask for advice from the class and teacher. It's clear to me that her intention isn't to complain. The purpose of our class is literally to share our problems and get advice. I think it's great that she is brave enough to speak her mind, and that she trusts us enough to say the truth. And by speaking of the specifics, we can all help her better."

 

My classmate replied, "Sure, but she could have said, 'So what if someone's parents do XYZ, what should the child do?' Even though we might all guess that it's her parents, at least it shows that she has the thoughtfulness to protect her parents' reputations, and no one can say for sure that her parents really did those things. Now that she's said those things, I have a bad image of her parents and her."

 



I then realized the merit to my classmates' views. Indeed, if it were a private conversation just between one or two people, then it might be OK to directly talk about family members' problems. But in a class with lots of people, many of whom are not close to us, it's more considerate and appropriate to use anonymity.

 

Conclusion

Every family, group, and organization has inner troubles. When we have conflict with others in our group, we shouldn't talk about the faults of other people or of the group towards those outside our immediate group. It's fine to ask for guidance from trusted individuals privately. But if there are lots of people listening, then we should anonymize people's names. At the core, it's all about treating others the way we'd want to be treated and protecting other people's reputation and self-respect.


 

Weekly Wisdom #277

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