Our Culture Shock: Practical Advice for Teaching International Students from Honor-Shame Cultures

In 2001 I taught American literature at a university in Central Asia. It was my first year living overseas, and the experience of teaching cross-culturally caused many instances of culture shock.

I enjoyed the friendships with students, but I resented their ongoing attempts to honor me as a teacher—they always stood when I entered the room, called me “Dr. Professor,” and declined to answer my questions! I was a typical young guy from California; my wardrobe consisted of T-shirts, shorts, and sandals. But in Central Asian culture, teachers’ clothing should reflect their social importance—this means wearing a three-piece suit, even in July. I begrudged these habits of “social maintenance.” As an egalitarian Westerner, I found Central Asian cultural practices confusing.

These small examples of culture shock are normal (but no less frustrating!) when teaching cross-culturally. Fortunately, I quickly learned about the cultural values of honor and shame. A better cultural understanding improved relationships with students and increased my enjoyment of teaching.

Most international students will be from an honor-shame culture such as China, India, Korea, or Saudi Arabia. Honor and shame function as their default operating system for interpreting and guiding life. Honor-shame cultures contrast (and conflict) with the innocence-guilt cultures typical in Western societies. This article explains the basic contours of honor-shame cultures, then offers general advice for teaching students from honor-shame cultures.

The Cultural System of Honor and Shame

Honor and shame function like a social–credit rating measuring one’s reputation. Honor is a person’s social worth, one’s value in the eyes of the community. Honor is when other people think well of you, resulting in harmonious social bonds in the community. Shame, on the other hand, is a negative public rating. The community thinks lowly of you and disassociates from you.

Honor and shame are innately relational, so honor-shame societies are collectivistic—the group takes priority over the individual. Members of honor-shame cultures are expected to maintain the social status of the group, even at the expense of personal desires.

Shame and honor are contagious; what one person does will affect the entire group. At a young age, children learn they are expected to act as representatives who uphold the group honor. So, a person’s aim is to avoid bringing shame upon his or her family, village, and even nation.

This is an abridged version of this article. To read more, subscribe to Christian Educators Journal.

Learn more at www.honorshame.com

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