How is verbal communication different in an honor-based Central Asian society versus a justice-based Western society? And what does that mean for cross-cultural workers and the establishment of a new culture among local believers?
In the field of intercultural communication, honor orientation and justice orientation refer to how a culture thinks about right and wrong. Honor-oriented cultures tend to believe that what is honorable is right and what is shameful is wrong. The way the community views a certain action or person is what is most important. A person is wrong if the community says he is wrong – even if he did not commit the thing he is accused of. Justice-oriented cultures tend believe that an action is right or wrong by nature of the action itself. A person is guilty if he does something wrong regardless of the community’s knowledge or lack of knowledge of it. He is similarly innocent even if the community believes he is guilty. This orientation toward honor or justice deeply impacts the way a culture thinks and speaks.
Our local Central Asian culture is strongly honor-oriented. Justice tendencies are there deep down as well, but they are woefully underdeveloped. As such, all action, including communication, is done in order to gain and preserve honor and to avoid or decrease shame. Honor and shame function like a kind of currency which can be given or taken away by the community. Local culture is intractably built around the honor of the patrilineage, the line of males and attached family members extending back into history and into the future. The communication of the individual affects the honor or shame of his patrilineage and his honor or shame is in turn affected by the actions and communication of the other individuals within his extended family, especially on his father’s side. For a Western culture parallel, consider the treatment of family honor and shame in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. In this classic novel, the scandalous speech and behavior of a younger sister puts all her sisters’ marriage prospects in serious jeopardy. For no honorable man would attach himself to such a shameful family.
Our Central Asian neighbors aspire at all times to honorable communication, which is understood locally to be high-volume speech that reflects the values of the culture: generosity, respect, hospitality, purity, and loyalty. In order to advance the honor of the patrilineage and avoid shame, locals go above and beyond in what seem to outsiders to be very lavish verbal expressions of respect – almost blasting clouds of honorable words in the general direction of the respectable recipient. In place of simple greetings, locals will effortlessly proclaim a stream of pleasantries and blessings upon the person they are greeting, machine-gun style, even if merely passing an acquaintance on the street, and even while simultaneously speaking on the phone with someone else. This honorable verbosity is typical not only of greetings, but also of farewells, requests, and replies. In these interactions both parties work to make sure their own honor and the honor of other party is affirmed in a public and highly verbal way. Sometimes this is done with such speed, skill, and genuineness as to leave Westerners stunned that any human society could be so poetically respectful. Other times, well, Jane Austen again provides us with a comparable, if exaggerated, figure in the over-the-top verbosity of the character, Mr. Collins. Listen to how Mr. Collins praises his patroness and relatives ad nauseam, and you will get a window into how this kind of “honorable” flattery can get off-balance for some in these types of cultures.
Sadly, because of this honor-orientation locals will also lie, stretch the truth, or deflect in order to avoid bringing shame to themselves or another party. This is often simply expected as a normal part of civility. If someone feels they cannot refuse an invitation honorably, they will often accept, while planning to cancel later. Or, the phrase Inshallah is used as an indirect no, where the will of God in circumstances takes the fall for the local not wanting to respond in the affirmative, and thus shame is assumed to have been avoided. These practices have led to a deep disillusionment among locals who know that many praise them to their face, and then quickly insult them behind their backs. We’re all hopelessly two-faced has become a sort of curse that many feel they cannot escape.
Christian workers among this kind of culture need to be aware of this honor-orientation of the culture and the ways it will pose challenges not only for daily life, but also for effective gospel communication. There are many areas in which Christian workers can contextualize their own communication toward this honor orientation. Lavish and respectful greetings, farewells, requests, and offers can all be made with genuine love and sincerity that is even deeper than that of the culture itself. This is possible because believers have a relationship with the God who is blessing all the nations through Christ. Care can be taken to speak of difficult things in contexts and ways that will not make the recipient feel in danger of unnecessary shame. The question can regularly be asked: “Is there a way I can carry out my spiritual work with this friend in a way viewed more honorable by the family and the community?”
Nevertheless, many aspects of gospel work will inevitably be viewed as shameful by the community. Christian workers will need to emphasize Christ’s enduring shame for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2) as a model for themselves and their local friends. There are many ways in which Westerners can grow in indirect and honorable communication that does not involve deceit. The ministry of Jesus actually provides a fascinating case study here. However, local believers will also need to learn to repent of the ways in which their honor-shame orientation has often led to lying and duplicity. Ultimately, the goal is that speech normally leveraged for the honor of the physical patrilineage will be instead be leveraged for the honor of God and his household of faith.
How can I honor my heavenly father and his family with all of my communication? Provided the idea of honor is infused with its biblical content, this is not a bad filter at all to be controlled by.
-For more on Honor vs. Justice communication, see Scott A. Moreau’s Effective Intercultural Communication