Honor and shame is the soil bed in which various cultural traits grow. In this post I mention eight cultural phenomena embedded in honor-shame values, and explain why those traits are associated with honor-shame. If you fail to understand the subsurface connection, you might define those cultural features negatively (see the phrases in parenthesis below); i.e., the flowers look like weeds.
1. Group orientation (group manipulation)
People who live on an island don’t deal with honor and shame. Why? Honor is ‘good opinions of us.’ So, there must be other people to have an opinion of us. So if the community’s opinion and acceptance of you is most important, your personal identity and behavior is subservient to the group’s interests. The group provides our core needs, so being a part of the group is essential for survival.
2. Public purity (Pharisaism, occupation with externals)
Nobody wants dirt nearby, so we sweep it up and toss it out. That is why “dirt” and “filth” are metaphors for shame. But eventually, those metaphors are taken literally, so that physical dirtiness connotes a social dirtiness. The Central Asian obsession with clean shoes, cars, and bags, illustrates this. Dirt is shameful, both metaphorically and culturally. If a person has clean shoes, they are considered clean (which is code for worthy and honorable).
3. Gender roles (sexism, gender discrimination)
A primary source of honor is observing the groups expectations of you. You are valuable to the community when you fulfill your role, and gender defines social expectations placed upon us. Men are to advance the family honor via victory in the public sphere; women are to avoid shame by means of modesty in the private realm.
4. Feasting (ostentation)
Jesus used feasting to redefine social honor, and was ridiculed for it (Lk 15:1, “he eats with sinners”). Eating together implies community, acceptance, and shared possessions. Disproportionate sums of money are spent on feasting because food bestows life and value on people. I was surprised my Bhutanese neighbor spent $340 for a goat to celebrate his new granddaughter, but he was proud to host such a feast for friends and family.
5. Patronage (nepotism, dependency)
When limited money and goods are acquired through relationships instead of jobs, patronage is the key economic model. Patronage is when a superior gives something physical (food, money, housing) in exchange for something social from the inferior (loyalty, obedience, and praise). Patronage is how the materially rich buy honor and status.
6. Hospitality (obligation)
Hosting people is patronage on a small scale. You can display your family’s wealth by generously providing for guests. Visiting family and neighbors is how group bonds are maintained, so being hosts or guests defines who is in (honorable) and who is out (shameful). You know who you are by who you eat with.
7. Indirect communication (lying)
Communication is more about managing social relationships than exchanging information. Talking is a ‘dance’, not ‘download’. For this reason, caution is taken to not affront other people. Westerners consider this lying (i.e., deliberately falsify information or deceive), but they are actually being true (i.e., loyal to upholding the social relationship by maintaining everyone’s honor, cf. Rom 3:3-4).
8. Event focused (tardiness)
The event doesn’t start at 4 p.m., but when everyone gets there! Identity is defined by the people we gather with, not the tasks we accomplish. So, to start without someone would be excluding them from the group, an offensive gesture. And since time is an instrument for conferring honor, the most important people arrive last, and we certainly can’t start without them! I suspect these cultural realities are largely familiar to you, but wanted to explain where they come from and why society is structured like that.
By keeping honor and shame in view, we acquire a fuller perspective on cultural dynamics. Instead of uprooting the cultural ‘weeds’, we can work with the ‘flowers.’
Think of these 8 traits as pre-established roads for honoring people. Yes, sin often abuses these cultural systems in gross ways, but that does not make them unredeemable for kingdom purposes. These features can be social tools for proclaiming, in word and deed, the shame-removing, honor-restoring grace of God in Christ.