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.
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