People from the honor-shame (H-S) cultures of the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa have the same needs that westerners do: love, honor, acceptance, significance, being valued, and a sense of community and belonging.  “They need to know that it is God who brings lasting honor and erases shame,” says Heather Murray, IFI staff member who works with Muslims in Portland OR.  God has brought H-S peoples to us so we can introduce them to this great God.  

But how can we love our H-S neighbors, school mates, coworkers, and those who shop where we do?  (Don’t know any H-S people?  You may find yourself living near or working with some within the next year, Heather says.)  How can we avoid making one cross-cultural blunder after another that may push them away from God?

We asked three IFI staff who have lived and served in H-S cultures to tell us:  Heather, Pam Stearns (who befriends Muslim students at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus OH) and Dave Mann (who serves as international pastor at Upper Arlington Lutheran Church in Columbus).  We drew additional information from an H-S workshop by Werner Mischke of MissionONE that Xenos Christian Fellowship sponsored in Columbus in 2014.

Characteristics of H-S peoples.  

Honor-shame peoples gain honor or suffer shame in two ways, says Mischke:  1) through one’s own actions and 2) through the actions of family members, tribe/group, and nation.  As a result, their lives are carefully regulated to gain honor and avoid shaming events.  In many of these cultures, the only acceptable covering for shame may be death.  (What a great lead into the gospel!)

Some behaviors that characterize H-S cultures are indirect communication (taking a long time to “get to the point”), using go-betweens for sensitive communications, humility, hospitality, loyalty to family and group, considering how decisions will affect one’s group rather than oneself, and dressing well, even if poor.  (Dressing in a T-shirt and “fashionably” torn jeans is considered a mockery of the poor.)  

Ways to love and honor and avoid shame

How is honoring different than loving?  “Honoring IS loving!” Pam says.  “In H-S cultures, how you treat others reflects your honor more than theirs.”  For the sake of the gospel, she urges us to set aside our ways of expressing love and watch what our H-S-culture friends do.  “Adopt a spirit of meekness with your H-S friends,” Pam urges.  

Pam, Dave, and Heather say that treating honor-shame-culture people the following ways can help us avoid relationship-damaging blunders and build good relationships that open doors to Jesus.

1. Speak indirectly

  • Start conversations gently, by asking about their family—themselves, their children, their spouse, their parents.  This tells them you care.  Listen respectfully to what they say.  Be prepared to tell about your family, too.  Focus your conversation on your friends and what they are interested in.
  • Describe behaviors you desire or appreciate rather than criticizing or expressing anger or disapproval directly–in public or in private.
  • When asking a favor or solving an interpersonal problem, use a mutually respected go-between.
  • Respect their ways of doing things even when you disagree.  Try to see things from their viewpoint.  Don’t debate the merits or faults of doing things their way versus yours.  “You will never win!” Pam warns!  With Muslims, never criticize Islam or Mohammed, which are the core of Muslims’ identity, just as Jesus IS our identity, Heather says.
  • Ask God to show you indirect ways to learn how they think.  Don’t ask direct, provocative (potentially embarrassing) questions, such as “Why do your parents want you major in accounting when you’d be much happier studying art?”
  • Accept their indirectness.  They aren’t being dishonest when they don’t look you in the eye, tell you they like something that they don’t, say they’ll come to your home for dinner “maybe” and not show up, or ask a mutual friend to tell you something sensitive instead of telling you themselves.  These are their ways of honoring you!
  • Answer invitations or other requests indirectly if you can’t or won’t accept.  Remain silent or say “maybe” or “if I don’t have to ______ that day” or “if ______   agrees.”   Silence, “maybe,” and accepting conditionally are polite ways to say “no.”  Yes, Matthew 5:37 does tell us to “Let your yes be yes and your no no,” but our H-S friends say “yes” and “no” differently than we do!
  • Accept gifts with gratitude. Your acceptance will be noticed and valued.  Focus on the giver, not the gift.  If the gift is food, say how much you enjoyed it.  If it’s something decorative, display it when the giver visits your home.  In some cultures, accepting an invitation or a gift too quickly is considered greedy.   To know how to respond, observe how your H-S friends accept gifts, even small ones, and how they respond to invitations.  
  • When a third party speaks, pay attention!

2. Use indirect body language

  • Make direct eye contact when greeting others and chatting casually, but when dealing with difficulties or urgent situations, avoid direct eye contact, which is seen as confrontational.
  • Sitting side by side or somewhat at an angle to others gives you a mutual focus.  Sitting directly across from each other will feel confrontational to your H-S friend.  
  • If you cross your legs, do NOT show the bottom of your foot to the other person; it’s highly insulting.  It’s best to keep both feet on the floor.  Likewise, avoid turning your back to others.  
  • Be quick to open doors, offer a place to sit, offer a pair of slippers when your guests remove their shoes at the door, offer refreshments, offer the best place at the table, and serve guests first.  In other words, treat H-S culture friends like VIPs!
  • When you meet an H-S person for the first time, bow or nod.  Shake hands if your new friend offers his.   A kiss on each cheek is appropriate in some cultures, but rarely a hug.

3. Be intentionally honoring in actions

  • Invite your friends to your home.  Find out in advance what foods are acceptable or forbidden.  Clean and tidy your home.  Greet guests warmly at the door.  Offer them slippers, for they will likely remove their shoes to honor you.  Also offer them the best seats and refreshments.
  • Visit your H-S friends in their home.  This shows great honor.  If they invite you to their home, thank them and go!  When you visit, take a small gift.  Your visit will be far more important to your friends than your gift.  To them, spending time together is a gift.
  • As a guest, don’t go first unless your host urges you to.  Follow what your host does.
  • When with H-S friends, dress modestly, nicer than you think the occasion warrants–no short skirts, strapless tops, “muscle” shirts, jeans, or T-shirts.  (We dress for personal comfort; they to show honor.)  
  • Honor them with your footwear!  Choose “dress-up” shoes that are clean and shined–no athletic shoes, sneakers, or flip-flops.   Sandals should have a back.  Remove your shoes before entering their home, especially if you see shoes outside the door!
  • Learn about their culture.  Ask questions to understand, not to criticize or confront.  
  • Observe.  Listen.  Often, people who are younger or of lower status do not speak until an elder or senior person speaks.  Treat H-S friends near your age as elders.
  • Make every effort to get along with those you dislike.  

4. Use caution in male-female situations

  • Approach the opposite sex only when accompanied by a friend or family member of that gender.  Let your friend or relative do the talking.
  • If your H-S friend introduces you to his/her spouse, greet the spouse briefly, asking about his/her welfare, but don’t make eye contact often or engage in long conversations, which dishonors your friendship.
  • Strictly avoid being alone with an H-S person of the opposite sex.  It’s considered shameful to appear in public with people of the opposite sex who aren’t relatives.  (Heather notes many Muslims won’t attend mixed-gender events.)  

5. Tell time your friend’s way

  • In many H-S cultures, being late for an appointment by 1 to 2 hours is quite acceptable.  Anticipate H-S dinner guests arriving late by preparing food that keeps well.  If guests do arrive an hour or two late, greet them with pleasure.  Don’t mention their tardiness!  

6. Cover shame and restore honor

  • If you have shamed your friends, cover that shame publicly by praising them, taking them out to a restaurant, or giving them a gift in public so others see you honor them.
  • If H-S friends are in need, give them a way to honor or help you by accepting your help.  For example, they have almost no furniture and you know where to get free or inexpensive furnishings.  Suggest something like, “IFI has free furniture that we need to give to others soon.  It would help us if you could to use some of it!  Could I show it to you?”  (Never tell an H-S friend what a gift cost, even if it was an incredible bargain!)
  • When H-S friends make a mistake or do something wrong, cover their shame as God did with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:21).  Assign blame to circumstances or yourself: “This would not have happened if I had explained things well!  I am so sorry!”  
  • Restore their honor as the father of the prodigal son did (Luke 15:11-32); treat them far better than you think they deserve.  God did it for us.  (See 2 Corinthians 5:21.)

7. Readjust expectations

Western cultures value truth, being right, assertiveness, effectiveness, time, and cost;
H-S cultures value honor, relationships, humility, loyalty, and hospitality.  Both cultures value love but express it differently.  Jesus urges grace.  When different expectations collide, Dave Mann advises, “
Lavish grace on H-S friends!”

  • See relationships as more important than being on time or being right.  Allow more time for get-togethers with H-S friends than you would with westerners.
  • Listen to hear how your friends are honoring you, not to hear what you’d call the truth.  Your friends will tell you what they think you want them to say.  To them, this is neither lying nor hypocrisy; it is honoring you by meeting your expectations.  Dave says, “Both honor and truth are there, but truth isn’t center stage.  Truth may be conveyed indirectly, in an off-hand remark, a qualifying statement.”  He reminds us that Romans 12:10 (ESV) says, “Outdo one another in showing honor.”  
  • When in doubt, observe quietly, inquire indirectly, and pray!

Conclusion

Werner Mischke points out that as Christians, we occupy the highest position in the universe, seated with Jesus in heavenly realms (Ephesians 1:20, 2:6).  Therefore, we can afford to take blame, put others first, and humble ourselves.  Doing so honors our Lord, who did these for us.  As God’s ambassadors, let us represent His kingdom well by treating others as He treats us.

Additional Resources