We were having visa problems, so I went with our administrator to the government office for a meeting. While there, our administrator noticed one of her former students interning for the government official. So to score a few social points, she kindly said, “Oh, I taught her. I bet she does a great job interning for you!” The official’s next words shocked me.
With the intern gal sitting right there, and with an aura of complete confidence, the official goes off,
“Her? She is awful! She can’t even write her name! (as she mockingly fumbles her pencil.) She doesn’t even know how to use the copy machine, and it only has ONE button! If somebody asks her a question, she pathetically mumbles, ‘uht-uht-uht’! She doesn’t know anything!”
Then my administrator responded quickly, “Well, she was only my student for 2 years. She would have learned those things if she graduated with me.”
The entire incident confused and appalled me. What was that all about? What provoked such a harsh outburst? ANSWER: They engaged in a verbal jousting match for honor. When honor is at stake in virtually every social interaction, dialogues in HonorShame cultures function like gladiatorial contests for securing and displaying honor. These rhetorical tug-of-wars frame dialogues when people prize social distinction. The ‘challenge-riposte’ dialectic also occurs in gift giving, fighting, blood revenge, and political dialogues. But it is most noticeable in verbal exchanges. These verbal jousting matches follow a highly-structured process that is worth knowing.
- Claim – (Person A) Someone makes a claim to worth and importance, usually indirectly. My administrator was subtly boasting in her teaching effectiveness, and claiming to provide benefit to the official.
- Challenge – (Person B) Since honor claims threatened another person’s status, they must be challenged. A challenge seeks to maintain social precedence by saying, “You’re not the hotshot you claim to be!” The government official declared she did not benefit from us. Rather, we were entirely dependent upon her benefaction and power. She delivered the goods; she maintained precedence. It was a relationship among unequals (meaning she could make future demands upon us).
- Riposte – (Person A) With the public watching, the original claim to honor must be defended, lest you lose face. Our administrator’s retort was simple and prudent. She managed to save face without causing offense.
- Public Verdict – Then the decision goes to the jury. The onlooking public decides who won honor and who lost social standing. The public grants fame, admiration, and/or respect. Verbal jousts are public and boisterous, since they are for earning the crowd’s respect. The government official yelled her comments for the whole office to hear. Ultimately, the verdict is not displayed on scorecards, but subtly communicated in future interactions.
With this rhetorical format in mind, we see how many of Jesus’ dialogues with the Pharisees follow this precise challenge-riposte format. One example is when Jesus healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17); try to identity the 4 parts in that story.
QUESTION: Have you encountered verbal jousting? How do you think the intern girl responded during the above jousting match?