How HS Cultures Dialogue (I)

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? HonorShame jousting 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

In the next post: What are the practical, relational implications of ‘verbal jousting’ for Christian workers in HonorShame contexts?  How do we to ‘play the game’?

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Posted in Communication, Culture, Relationships
2 comments on “How HS Cultures Dialogue (I)
  1. Great post. This subject of honor competition is huge. Thanks for writing about it. It’s also an issue in the Christian community. Apostle Paul calls it rivalry (Phil 1:17; 2:3). I think Jesus wants us to have an “honor surplus.” We experience this through God’s love for us as our King and elder brother, and by the love and honor we experience by being part of God’s people, the community of faith. This should set us free from having to engage in honor competition. But how many believers do we know who actually do not engage in rivalry, who do not feel the need to be defensive, who have enough “shame resilience” in Christ that they can “vacate the playing field” of honor/shame games? I want to learn more about how Christians should respond when they are in cross-cultural environments where honor competition puts them into awkward situations.

  2. Tim Bulkeley says:

    This honour shame stuff is fairly new to me, I am intrigued by the question about how the intern responded. The only way I can see is to ensure you work even better.

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