Understanding 8 Traits of HonorShame Cultures

640px-Flower-bed-MoscowHonor 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.


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10 Comments on “Understanding 8 Traits of HonorShame Cultures

  1. As usual, you knocked this one out of the park! (or Golazo! as we say south of the border!). Especially helpful is the negative “equivalent”.

    By the way, I wish you wouldn’t post so much…I don’t have time to process your posts and respond! 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Terrific post! Serving the Lord in an Honour/Shame emphasis culture, I particularly like the way you described point 7 and how what a Christian westerner might see as lying and therefore ‘unfaithfulness’ and lack of integrity, an HS culture person sees as total consistency and faithfulness because of being faithful to relationships.

    It is a process of helping a person re-frame and re-define the terms of honour/shame/faithfulness according to God’s definition rather than man’s/culture’s definitions.

    We have seen so much a neglect of this re-defining and then cultural definitions are brought into the Christian life and the life of the Church and folk try to live with one foot in the church and one in the culture, with no biblical ‘mind-renewal’ on the issues….and at least this greatly hinders solid growth and at most devestating destruction of God’s local church. Oh for more people like yourself who will continue to examine and learn more on this topic of honour and shame. God bless you.

  3. Not only is this information valuable for contextualizing the Gospel for today, it’s also highly valuable for understanding the Biblical context itself. Well done, and I’m looking forward to more!

    • Good point, Daniel! I agree that honor and shame (and all the attending dynamics) are rather essential for understanding the original message of the Bible.

  4. Question about point #8. Could arriving late to a function be a way of gathering honor to oneself and conversely adding to the shame of others?

    Those forced to wait are then placed in the shameful position of waiting for that final person?

    Is this what is occurring in Exodus 32:1 when the people were ‘Boosh’ or ashamed that Moses was taking so long to come back down the mountain?

  5. Thanks so much for covering these aspects of how shame/honor priorities impact people.

    I do have a question about your first assertion. You say that those living on an island don’t deal with shame/honor forces. I would strongly disagree with you, having experienced that for a decade in the Western Pacific. I witnessed this as the most prominent cultural dynamic among those indigenous to the islands. It functioned from the macro to the micro. I watched a community wherein a Seventh Day Adventist missionary was tragically murdered humbled and shamed by their member’s atrocious behavior and offense to the missionary’s family and organization. The small community corporately owned the guilt and pleaded for forgiveness. I’ve also seen it in the nuclear family where behavior of young people was clearly dictated by expectations of family/clan/tribe, not personal morality or personal beliefs. Thoughts?

    • I think he/she was speaking about living alone as if on a deserted island with no one around- then there’s no one to shame you.

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