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.

The social matrix of honor-shame cultures is designed around establishing and expanding a network of relationships. Connections are vital in every aspect of life. Who you know (and who knows you) is everything! Group-oriented cultures value relational harmony. People strive to maintain interpersonal bonds and avoid offending others. Saving face and keeping peace are moral imperatives. Gifts and hospitality are always repaid, lest one incur a social debt of shame before peers.

Family dynamics and leadership structures are more authoritarian. People grant leaders authority and prestige in return for provision and protection. In an honor-shame culture, every person has a proper role, which is often based on age, gender, and position. People maintain honor by behaving according to that role. When a person has multiple social roles, acceptable behavior depends on the context, not the rules. Parents socialize children and honorably navigate relationships to be interdependent, not independent.

The group enforces morality externally. When making choices, people ask, “What is honorable?” “What will others think?” or “What about my family name?” Honor-shame cultures do believe in moral right and wrong, but morality is defined relationally, not legally or abstractly. What is best for relationships is morally right.

While individual actions can produce shame, the deepest shame often comes from being a certain type of person. Status in collectivistic societies is primarily inherited from the group. Who you are, either honorable or shameful, is ascribed to you based on your family’s ethnicity or status. Identity is based more on who you are than what you do.

Shame produces feelings of humiliation, disapproval, and abandonment. Shame means inadequacy of the entire person. While guilt says, “I made a mistake,” shame says, “I am a mistake.” In honor-shame cultures, the problem is with the actual person, so the shamed individual is banished from the group. To avoid such rejection and isolation, people mask their shame from others.

In collectivistic cultures, managing shame is essential because a shamed person (unlike a guilty person) can do very little to repair the social damage. Correcting shame requires a sort of remaking or transformation of the self; one’s identity must change. More often than not, a person of a higher status must publicly restore honor to the shamed, like the father graciously did for the prodigal son in Luke 15.

Westerners often miss honor and shame dynamics, partly because the topic is hard to discuss. Many cultures use name or face as a metaphor for discussing honor and shame because people are recognized by their names or faces. The concept of honor has various names: glory, reputation, status, respect, dignity, or worth.

Cultural expressions of honor and shame can appear contradictory. For example, Middle Eastern cultures aggressively compete for honor. Conflict is viewed as win-lose or lose-win. So they may resort to honor killings or even terrorism to regain honor. But Far Eastern cultures, such as Japan and Korea, strive for harmony. They think of conflict as a win-win or a lose-lose game. So East Asians respond to shame by withdrawing or even committing suicide. Though the outward expressions contrast, both cultural blocs are deeply rooted in honor-shame values.

Teaching Students from Honor-Shame Cultures

The cultural system of honor and shame shapes every area of life, including the classroom. The following examples should help on the way to understanding and educating international students.

  1. Education is for reputation. In honor-shame cultures, people study to acquire status, not just information. Education is one of the best ways to gain face. People boast in their educational degrees, and parents gain prominence from their children’s academic achievements. The motivation for many students (and their families) is to enhance reputation. This is why there is pressure to attend certain prestigious schools.
  2. Teachers are revered. In honor-shame cultures, teachers are near the top of the social hierarchy. A Central Asian friend shared that as a child she was dismayed to see her teacher exit the school bathroom because she assumed teachers were so holy they never had to relieve themselves!

International students communicate honor to teachers. They may use special titles, perform honorific gestures (i.e. standing up, shaking hands), and give token gifts. These actions are meant to strengthen the relationship, which helps them procure the teacher’s knowledge and wisdom. Similarly, they always avoid shaming teachers. Students ask few questions to avoid disrespecting or challenging the teacher. And soliciting constructive feedback is difficult with students who seek to give face. Western teachers disregard social distance and prefer a more egalitarian relationship with students. But this discomforts international students who seek to know their place and honor the teacher.

  1. Students are from honorable families. Most international students in the West come from a family with money or connections. They’ve grown accustomed to being treated as higher class or as the golden child. This does not excuse a student’s snobbery or arrogance, but it can help you counsel international students struggling with a loss of identity or status in their own enculturation process.
  2. Learning happens collectively. In group-oriented cultures, most of life depends on who you know, not what you know. Problems are solved via connections and relationships. In a classroom environment, this means school assignments are not measures of individual knowledge, but opportunities for group collaboration. So during tests, students feel free to discuss and share answers. For them, this is “helping,” not “cheating.” Patiently help students adjust to a new paradigm of socialization and education. Explain the individualistic customs of Western education.
  3. Food symbolizes relationship. In many cultures, sharing food symbolizes relationship. To get to know your students, enjoy food together. Join them for a meal in the cafeteria. Invite your international students to your house. Ask them to join you at a restaurant with their cultural cuisine. When my wife taught ESL in Los Angeles, our fondest memories were of the times we had students in our home. Students will feel honored when you take time to break bread with them.

Teaching cross-culturally can evoke confusion, frustration, and shock. As the number of international students increases, Christian educators must discern how cultural differences impact education. Understanding the honor-shame paradigm can help us relate to people from around the world, both inside and outside the classroom.

Jayson Georges (MDiv., Talbot School of Theology) ministered for nine years in Central Asia, where he taught in both university and corporate contexts. He is the founding editor of www.HonorShame.com and author of two books: The 3D Gospel and Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures.

Learn more at www.honorshame.com