The one word we all should stop using

By Hendrika Jooste

We have all seen social media posts where people jokingly share Afrikaans words or expressions they have used incorrectly or translated directly from Afrikaans into English, ending in a faux pas of comic proportions for the listeners and instant regret for the speaker.

Our book warns people of the top five words or expressions to avoid using outside South Africa. Words like “Eish” and “Howzit” and phrases such as “I speak English very deliciously” are frowned upon in most countries. The top one, however, is the expression, “Ah, shame”. In South Africa, we use the word “shame” to empathise with someone or their circumstances. It is an expression to convey that deep sympathy from the bottom of your heart; when you don’t have words, you feel the other person’s pain and urge to reach out and hug them.

We commonly say: “Oh, shame, poor you!” Even Afrikaans-speaking South Africans use the word “shame” instead of “siestog” or “foeitog”. Some even write it as “sjym” or “sjympies”. Everybody in the South African cultural context understands that the word expresses sincere sympathy or empathy. But here comes the big BUT. We also use it to convey sarcasm, for example: “Oh, shame, the Stormers lost again!” By adding diminutives such as “shamepies” or “sjympies” we add yet another dimension. You can be very condescending, showing your patronising and superior attitude towards others. We translate the expression “name and shame” in Afrikaans with “noem en verdoem”, which means judgement.

In other countries “shame” is experienced as an insult. Research shows that “shame” or “shaming” involves tearing down another person’s character or identity. “You are not very nice; you are a grouch”, for example. Shame is an unpleasant, self-conscious emotion often associated with negative self-evaluation, motivation to quit, and feelings of pain, exposure, distrust, powerlessness and worthlessness.

In her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown mentions that we all have shame. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive emotions that we as human beings may experience. The only people who do not share it are those who lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. Brené defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy of love, belonging and connection.

Shame can bring about profound feelings of deficiency, defeat, inferiority, unworthiness or self-loathing. Our attention turns inward; we isolate ourselves from our surroundings and withdraw into closed-off self-absorption. Not only do we feel alienated from others but also from the healthy parts of ourselves. The alienation from the world is replaced with painful emotions, self-deprecating thoughts and inner anguish. Empirical research demonstrates that it is dysfunctional at individual and group levels.

Shame can also be described as an unpleasant, self-conscious emotion that involves a negative self-evaluation. Shame can be a painful emotion seen as a “… comparison of the self’s action with the self’s standards …” but may equally stem from comparing the self’s state of being with the ideal social context’s standard. According to Neda Sedighimornani, shame is relevant in several psychological disorders, such as depression, phobia of social interactions and even some eating disorders.

By shaming other people, we create a painful experience in multiple ways.

  • It makes them feel hurt, attacked, defensive and bitter if done repeatedly.
  • It makes the other person resist sharing their experiences with you in the future, which slowly hurts the relationship.
  • It can damage the long-term self-confidence of the other person.

South Africans who travel and live in different parts of the world constantly get feedback on our daily conduct at work and in social settings. People perceive us as opinionated, aggressive and judgmental. In the United Kingdom and here in Australia, it is frowned upon by most. It is not strange for an Australian to reply to your “Ah, shame” with “Why do you think it’s a shame?” Maybe the word “shame” is one of the culprits that cause some citizens from our host countries to perceive us so negatively.

Perhaps that is also why so many of us would rather live in a car, get a divorce, or pack and go back to South Africa before we ask for help or assistance. It is a shame to be made redundant, to have a failed relationship or to struggle with mental health issues on your migration journey. You rather live in your car before you ask for government assistance. You blame your partner and get a divorce, that rips your family apart, instead of going for counselling. And you rather go back home and bad-mouth your host country and its people before you get medical help for your mental health issues. By shaming others, we inadvertently shame ourselves as well.

I know it is tough to change a habit that is not only engrained in the fibre of your cultural being but also reinforced over years of using it. After 17 years of living in various host countries, I still get caught off guard. At least I have developed the self-awareness to correct myself immediately and explain to my listener why I said what I said.

It takes more than two months to change a behavioural pattern. Maybe we all should be more mindful of how we express sympathy or empathy. Here are a few examples to practice:

  1. I am so sorry to hear it. Or: I am so sorry for your loss. It must be tough for you.
  2. You poor thing. Are you feeling unwell?
  3. Bless you. Or: Bless your heart.
  4. My deepest sympathies.
  5. I am here if you need me.
  6. Oh no, that is awful. Or: Oh no, that is terrible.
  7. My heart is breaking for you.
  8. I am so sorry you are going through this.

Let’s stop shaming each other and be kinder and more empathetic towards others and ourselves. We have more than enough obstacles to deal with on our migration journeys. Let’s eliminate shame!

Are you looking for support on your migration journey?

Contact Hendrika Jooste – the Migrant Whisperer, at or visit her website at

Hendrika Jooste and Robyn Vogels co-wrote a book for South African migrants:

Your D.I.Y. move guide to Australia: The South African guide.
You can connect with them at

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