5 Rude Things Honor-Shame Cultures Say

Guest Colin E. Andrews has lived in Central Asia for 10 years and Southeast Asia for 4 years. 

Every culture has unwritten rules about what is rude and what is polite.  Conflict in cross-cultural communication happens when two cultures have a seemingly opposing sets of rules. Here are five things that people in honor-shame cultures say and do that are intended to show respect, but are often interpreted as rudeness by Westerners.

1. Beat around the Bush “Tell it like it is!”  “Shoot straight!”  “Cut to the chase!”  In Western cultures, we don’t like small talk.  If someone has something important to say, being direct is expected.  We tend to interpret indirectness as someone being shy, passive-aggressive or even dishonest. rude talk

Imagine the following business meeting.  Joe (American businessman) firmly shakes Mr. Kawasaki’s hand and says, “Nice to finally meet you.  Did you have a chance to read through the contract my office sent you?”  Mr. Kawasaki ignores Joe’s question and replies, “Please come in.  Sit down.  Let me pour you some tea.  How is your family?  How do you like Japan so far?” Both people are trying to be polite.  Joe doesn’t want to waste Mr. Kawasaki’s time, so he gets right down to business.  But, getting right down to business is considered overly direct and rude in most honor-shame cultures.  So, Mr. Kawasaki attempts to show his respect for Joe’s long travel to Japan by pouring him some tea and taking time to ask about his family.

2. “How old are you?” Asking someone their age, especially a woman, in Western culture is considered impolite.  However, age is very important in honor-shame cultures. In many languages, there are different pronouns for people, depending on their age. English uses one pronoun to refer to everyone from grandmothers to children, and even our pets: you.  When someone from an honor-shame culture asks you how old you are, they are actually trying to figure out how to address you and talk about you.  They want to be polite, because using the wrong pronoun can result in a loss of face for both parties.

3. “Wow, you’re fat!” This phrase has raised more than a few Western eyebrows; calling someone fat is an insult!  But, believe it or not, when someone from an honor-shame culture calls you fat, they are actually paying you a very high compliment.  Carrying a few extra pounds around the waist is often a sign of wealth and power.  In Central Asia, they frequently refer to someone’s big belly as their “authority,” and the word for “fat” also means “healthy.” So, being fat is a compliment.

4. “How much money do you make?” What!? Isn’t that kind of personal?  Not in honor-shame cultures, where wealth is a sign of status.  The more money you make, the more honor you have.  In fact, just like age, some honor-shame cultures have special language patterns they use when speaking to or about wealthy and powerful people. 

In Thailand, there’s an entire set of vocabulary that is only used when speaking about the royal family.  So, when someone from an honor-shame culture asks how much money you make, they are probably not trying to be nosey and invade your privacy.  They may be trying to figure out what your status is compared to their own, so they can properly respect your status.

5. Smile and Giggle at Suffering When my son received a very bad burn on his leg during a motorbike ride in Thailand, he spent a week in a Thai hospital for surgeries to remove dead skin.  My son screamed at the top of his lungs in pain as Thai nurses cleaned his wound.  But, they just giggled. The more he screamed, the more they laughed.  “What the heck is going on here?  How can anyone be so uncaring and rude?” Well, his nurses were actually very upset by seeing such a young child suffer so much.  And, they were very embarrassed (loss of face) by the pain they were causing by changing his dressing. 

Westerners tend to blush and apologize when we are embarrassed.  But, in many honor-shame cultures (especially in Southeast Asia), laughing and smiling is the default response to embarrassment or loss of face. Both responses are learned behaviors programmed into us by our cultural upbringing.

CONCLUSION: The next time someone from an honor-shame culture is “acting rudely,” stop and ask yourself a few questions.

  • Is there some kind of honor-shame transaction taking place?
  • Is there a potential loss of face the other person is trying to avoid?
  • Is the person with whom I’m communicating younger or older than me? Financially wealthy or poor?  Male or female?  Age, wealth, gender, and rank usually affect communication patterns within honor-shame cultures, and determine what is “polite” and what is “rude.”
  • Before you label some as rude, ask a cultural insider about a particular action that bothers you.

  Now read5 Shameful Things Westerners Say


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4 Comments on “5 Rude Things Honor-Shame Cultures Say

  1. In Japan, people do tend to be more vague when it comes to rejecting an offer, or naming the person at fault, but I don’t notice a significant difference in how long it takes to get down to business. Japanese businessmen and women can be quite to the point although the discussions tend to go on a lot longer (partly in order to achieve consensus and partly because efficiency is not emphasised in the same way).

    It’s still rude to ask a woman her age in most circumstances, and calling someone fat or asking their salary is also rude. It would also be unthinkable for hospital staff here to giggle if someone were in pain.

    Perhaps this article is more about Thai culture or south-east Asian culture, or perhaps honor-shame is not so central to Japanese culture; defilement and purification (as emphasized in Shinto) often seems to be a more useful theme for understanding sin and justification here.

  2. I lived in N. Africa for a number of years and I had another experience of mis-understood “rudeness.” Mauritanians seldom use please or thank you. “Atainy” (“Give me that,”) they say as they point at whatever they want. It seemed extremely blunt in an otherwise indirect culture and was very hard to get used to. It seemed to lack any sense of manners. One day I asked a friend about it and he said, “If someone asks me for something, I can not refuse him. Why pretend with please & thank you.” However, a Mauritanian entering a room full of people will greet each person in the room individually (and at some length). Americans entering the same room might utter a weak “hi” as we glance around the room (or may even say nothing). Our lack of greetings was seen as a real rudeness and lack of respect.

  3. Thanks for sharing! I find the concluding questions particularly helpful.

    I’ve lived in smalltown E. Asia (honor-shame / fear-power context) for over ten years as well as big city E. Asia for a couple years, and can resonate with these points. At the same time, I (& various cultural insiders in these places) would also say that asking someone’s age and salary oftentimes has nothing to do with honor-shame, it’s plain curiosity and simply not taboo to ask. Well, a small number of people would feel it’s being nosy but still ask anyway.

    As for commenting “You’re fat!” (or “You’ve gotten fatter!”) in these places, it’s neither a compliment nor an insult but simply an observation. If a person’s obviously quite fat or has a big pimple on his face, people just naturally comment aloud, there isn’t the same kind of “filter” that Westerners/others have. It may be embarrassing to the fat person but it’s not considered impolite.

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