The 5 (Unwritten) Rules of Honor-Shame Cultures
During my years in Central Asia, I always dreaded being pulled over by a policeman. No matter how much I tried to demonstrate my innocence according to all the traffic rules, the officer usually showed little interest in concepts like guilt, laws, or justice.
Then one day, I saw a driver who had been pulled over yell out his family name to the policeman. The officer waved him on and even apologized for the inconvenience! What happened? This decision came from a different “rule-book”—the cultural code of honor and shame.
Westerners frequently gripe, “Honor-shame cultures don’t believe in rules.” They actually do, but their rules are mostly unwritten! Here are five common rules that shape life in honor-shame cultures. Chapters 2 and 3 of Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures explains more honor-shame rules.
Failing to understand these values can create significant stress for cross-cultural workers—and not just because of unfair traffic tickets! To meaningfully engage people with the Gospel, we must understand how the cultural values of honor and shame function, especially since they run counter to most Western cultural values.
1. Family defines everything.
In collectivistic societies, identity is defined by the group you belong to. When two people meet, one of the first items of conversation is figuring out which family, clan, or village the other person is from. Since honor is a shared commodity, what one person does brings honor (or shame) upon the entire community. Children are taught from an early age how to bring honor to the family, and people are expected to be loyal to their community, even at personal cost.
In Western cultures, family is much more of a voluntary association. At the age of 18 or so, young adults are encouraged to venture out from the home to “find themselves” or “establish their own lives.”
2. Social capital fixes anything.
In honor-shame cultures, life is a constant quest to develop and manage an intricate network of relationships—that is, social capital. The most important asset any person has is his or her reputation. If other people respect and know you, then you can accomplish just about anything. Since problems are solved via relationships, a strong social network is essential for success in life. You accrue social capital by giving gifts, helping people, and sharing meals. Then, you can “cash it in” when you need help with a problem.
In Western cultures, solving a problem through relationships is seen as corrupt and unfair. We use financial capital to buy our goods and services—for which the price is clearly listed and is the same for everyone.
3. Aggression restores honor.
When honor is life’s most important commodity, then any insult to one’s honor must be vigorously defended. Most honor-shame cultures are antagonistic, which means they compete for their honor. When a woman is shamed, her male relatives appear weak for failing to protect her. The cultural response is to defend the family’s name with aggression, either against the woman herself or against the aggressor. Similarly, a father whose child turns to Christ may respond with public anger and threats in order to save face in the community.
On a larger scale, the rise of ISIS is in part a reaction to international shame and an attempt to restore Islam’s honor through violence. In the ISIS worldview, blood erases shame.
For Westerners, bad behavior is viewed as a crime against the state, not a personal offense or honor insult. Those who respond to dishonor with violence are seen as immature bullies.
4. Words define status.
Honor-shame cultures often have clearly prescribed greetings for people of various social standing. For example, the greeting you say to an elder is different from what you would say to a younger person. Words are tools for defining the social hierarchy. Since the purpose of language is to communicate honor and maintain relational harmony, the concepts of honesty and truth look different.
An Afghan-American Christian once explained to me, “When I invite an American to my house and they say, ‘Let me look at my calendar,’ that is so insulting! In my culture, you must immediately say, ‘Yes!’ to affirm the relationship, even if there might be a scheduling conflict.” In this woman’s culture, an immediate affirmation is true to the relationship, even if the invitee knows she’ll have to cancel later.
In Western cultures, words communicate information and facts. “Cut to the chase” and “don’t beat around the bush” are morally-laden imperatives. Indirect communication that prioritizes harmony and status comes across as deceptive, dishonest, or manipulative.
5. Food conveys honor.
In honor-shame cultures, the people you eat with define both your community and identity. A friend in Central Asia asked me incredulously, “Do Americans really eat lunch alone in a cubicle or while driving in the car, like in movies?” Breaking bread together imparts honor, so eating alone is unthinkable. This is why hospitality and meals are so significant in Muslim cultures. Food represents the gift of life.
Westerners think of food in far more functional and personal ways—to satisfy hunger, lose weight, or satisfy cravings. Lunch interrupts our busy schedule and lounging around the table for hours just drinking tea is seen as a waste of time.
These rules help us decode the internal logic that structures honor-shame cultures. If we seek to understand these honor-shame principles, we can learn how to better relate to people and share the meaning of the Gospel.
Click here to view the related infographic “Cultural Vantage Points.”