5 Keys for Relationships in HonorShame Contexts

Relationships are paramount in honor-shame cultures.  Who you know is more important than what you know. Everything happens through family, neighbors, or acquaintances. These five relational keys are the unwritten rules of social interactions in honor-shame contexts.


1. Give gifts

When I urgently needed a document for my apartment, a simple chocolate bar made the process quick and painless.  Gifts have a subtle way of saying, “You are an important and worthy person!  Now, could you please use some of your status to help me out?”  A gift opens doors (Proverbs 18:16). From my experience with officials, you can either give a gift early, or be extorted for a bribe later.  Your choice! When my wife taught ESL in California to internationals from East Asia, we were surprised how generously they gave gifts at the end of a course.  For them, gifts are a primary way to secure relationships and confer status.  honor-shame cultures are structured around reciprocity – everybody must be sharing and gifting with one another.  By giving gifts, you can get in the game.

2. Know roles

Honor-shame cultures tend to be hierarchical.  This bothers egalitarian Westerners who insist everyone be treated fairly.  People are expected to play different social roles.  So, understand what role others expect you to play, based on your gender, age, ethnicity, and position.  Once you properly understand the role expected of you, play the part.  This means dressing, relating, eating, and communicating accordingly. Know your place – at the table, in the conversation, in the room. One role foreigners in developing countries are often expected to play is patron.  Patronage means using your resources and power to provide security and goods to those less well-off.  In return, they will offer you loyalty and public notoriety.  It is tricky and messy social game, but an important one for influential relationships.  

3. Don’t expose

If you unnecessarily expose a person’s shame or weakness, they will feel like you are rubbing their nose in the poop to teach them a lesson.  Nobody wants that!   Instead of demanding a monetary loan be repaid, just ask them to repay with their time by helping you.  Instead of asking someone who is running late “Where are you?”, ask “Are you OK?”.  Instead of saying “No” directly to an invitation, just say “Thank You” or some other polite euphemism.  Instead of demanding a verbal apology, symbolize your forgiveness by inviting that person to lunch. There are times we must address sin.  How?  Nathan’s rebuke of David was a good example.  Nathan’s parable wisely revealed David’s sin, but without shamefully exposing or challenging his superior.  When there is sin, try to address the issue without exposing the person.  Consider the relational impact of your approach, and limit exposure.  When people sense shame, they naturally become resistant and defensive.  

4.  Be clean

People make snap decisions about your value based on your appearance.  So if you disregard purity rules, then people may disregard your message as unworthy.  I once heard a Muslims dismiss the Christian message, simply because “Christians don’t clean their shoes.”  In their minds, dirty shoes invalidated the gospel. Americans are appalled when someone litters publicly, but express little concern over casual dress or an unshaved face.  Western culture focuses on public cleanliness, but Eastern cultures focus on personal cleanliness.  In India, a man emerges from his one-room, dirt-floor home with his hair perfectly combed and suit nicely ironed, because personal purity is paramount.

5. Guest well

People in honor-shame cultures are typically very proud of their hospitality.  It is a chance to secure new relationships and display their generosity.  So, being a good guest often means allowing yourself to be served, and letting them be lavish hosts.  So instead of helping set the table or wash the dishes, a better response may be effusive thanks and compliments. An American pastor visited a house fellowship of Japanese Christians.  When he entered and removed his shoes, there were only bright pink slippers remaining for him to wear, so his hosts offered him their own slippers.  He insisted on wearing the pink slippers, as a sign of humility and servanthood.  When I heard the story, I wondered about the Japanese’s embarrassment and shame anxiety over the fact that their older, honored guest was wearing girl’s slippers.  We can have the right intentions, but inadvertently disgrace others by not allowing them to be good hosts.

Give gift, know roles, don’t expose, be clean, and guest well.  These 5 points certainly don’t guarantee ministry success, but will probably lessen the odds of relational frustration and help us build a better relational platform from which we can proclaim the Good News. 


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8 Comments on “5 Keys for Relationships in HonorShame Contexts

  1. Thank you so much for starting this blog. I was ready for it!

    The idea of [giving a gift now] or [being extorted for a bribe later] makes sense to me.

    What do you think is going through the minds of shame-honor people when a gift is given? Do they see the gift as a precursor to a request? If yes, is that bothersome to them?

    In our culture when we are nice to someone or give a gift, the recipient could reply with “I wonder what they want now?” accompanied with negative emotional energy.

    • Hi David –
      Glad you enjoy the post. Yes, that is a great question – what is going on under the surface when somebody receives a gift?

      In short, a gift honors a person. Whereas, most of our economic transactions commodify people, a gift humanizes people. When you honor someone, it forges a new relationship, or acquaintance. And in honor-shame cultures, many goods are exchanged through reciprocity with friends – that means essentially that people have to share everything with the group, it is socially ‘impossible’ for someone to decline a request. Because, that would be “shameful.” A gift confers honor, which creates a relationship, which demands reciprocity. But when most of lifes good comes through such mutual relationships, they are eager to form such bonds. I don’t think they have as much of that “what-do-you-want-from-me?” suspicion that you or me feel towards a door-to-door salesman. 🙂 Well, those are my observations based on life in Central Asia.

      A future blogpost will explore these honor-shame dynamics behind gift-giving, since it is so critical in that part of the world. Great to hear from you!

      I’m curious to know, what do other readers think about this topic?
      What do you think happens when people receive a gift?

  2. We worked in Africa for 15 years. We went through innumerable border posts, many in very hot locations. At first, everything went really slowly. It could take us 30 minutes to an hour to get everything done after we got to the first window. On our third or fourth trip, the immigration officer said, “It really is hot. I wish I had money for a cold drink.” I gave him money for a coke. He stamped our passports. We now knew what was going on but we didn’t want to pay bribes. So we changed our approach. We would say to officials when we started in the process, “Its hot! can we get you officers a cold drink?” They always said yes. We took orders and one of our party was off to the kiosk. Things went a lot more relaxed and quickly after that. We’d repeat the gesture at the country we were entering’s post.

  3. Very good article. Lots of truth. Been working in E Asia for 30 years so I can verify the truth of the article.

  4. I red this and understand retrospectively my own honor-shame culture in which I grew up. The realization helps in the efforts to minister.
    Thank you.

  5. Referencing the point about do not expose: I use the example of Nathan confronting David as indirect and direct communication. Indirect being used more in a shame-based culture.
    He did use a parable to soften David at first, but then did he not directly say “You are the man!” and expose him? So do you think the idea is to ‘butter him up’ so to speak before being in his face?

  6. I believe quite strictly in following the law of the land (when it doesn’t conflict with the Word of God – see Romans 13 etc.) I realise this is a personal scruple of mine and I wouldn’t impose it on other Christians to the same extent (I personally insist on keeping the 70mph speed limit on UK motorways, but accept most people think it’s fine to do 80mph. Although Christians who lie in order to get discounts, or cheat on taxes concern me!)
    My point is, that as a UK citizen I am obliged under the Bribery Act 2010 to avoid any and all bribery in every way – with the exception of where lives depend on it (hostage situations) or times when I have no choice but to give way to extortion (if I needed life-saving hospital treatment, for example). When I lived in Central Asia in the past, the business I worked for had a no-tolerance approach to bribery. This meant that we had to wait in line for hours to get work visas, and we must have looked stupid to those around us. The company had to sack one or 2 staff while I was there for using bribery to help the business.
    What approach would you recommend to a Christian who feels morally and conscientiously bound to avoid all bribery? Would I be no good in Central Asia unless I sacrifice this cultural value of mine (an excessive Western emphasis on “fairness” instead of emphasising relationships) ? I guess if challenged, I would emphasise my desire to honour my God, as well as my country back home. But such an approach could relegate me to always having an “outsider” status, except amongst those very familiar with dealing with “Westernised” people. On the other hand, I think it’s fairly clear that bribery does a great deal of harm around the world, no matter how “acceptable” it is. South Korea used to have an honour-shame culture including bribery, but as it has developed, the bribery has stopped and now it is considered one of the most transparent, non-corrupt nations – I think that’s an example of how rejecting bribery can be a good thing. Or am I indulging in a “colonialist” mindset?

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