Understanding the culture scale, Direct/Indirect, through the lens of honor & shame

Take a quantum leap in understanding your cross-cultural ministry partner by understanding the five basic culture scales. Today’s focus: Direct/Indirect.

Pictures taken on the evening of the story below

A story of indirect communication in an honor and shame culture

We were driving in a large Arab city in the Middle East earlier this year. My dear friends (and Mission ONE ministry partners) Fahim and Karima (not their real names), were in the front. I was in the back seat. It was about 7:30 at night and we were looking for a certain neighborhood where we could find the proper evening accommodations for me. In order to get directions, we stopped at a parking lot in front of a shop where some young Arab men were standing around and talking. Fahim asked them for directions; one of the young men answered how to get to the neighborhood we were looking for. We drove away, proceeding according to his directions.

We soon discovered that these directions were misleading. As we continued driving around, not able to find the place we were looking for, I suggested from the back seat that maybe it was an example of the “honor and shame” culture at work. We ended up going in circles, and a few minutes later, Fahim, said, Yes, I think you are right about this honor and shame in our culture. We ended up in the same neighborhood in front of the same Arab guys; Fahim, himself an Arab, yelled at them in mild disgust.

Eventually, we found our destination through trial and error.

What happened to us? Here’s my explanation using the cultural lens of honor and shame.

  • Generally speaking, non-westerners, including Arab men, are committed to avoiding shame. While shame avoidance is a powerful motivation in all cultures including the west, this need to avoid shame is of another order of magnitude in eastern cultures; one might even say it as strong as the need to breathe. Maintaining one’s honor is simply vital in the truest sense of the word.
  • Indirect communication is part of avoiding shame; it protects the honor—both of the one speaking and of the one hearing. This is true for oneself and for one’s family, group of friends, or clan. Honor is established and maintained in public, face-to-face.
  • One of the characteristics of honor/shame cultures is the social ‘game’ of challenge and riposte. It may also be referred to as the honor game, or push-and-shove. This honor game is ubiquitous in eastern cultures; that is, it’s everywhere, all the time, for everybody. It is simply taken for granted as a normal, essential part of social interaction. And it is crucial for westerners in an eastern culture to understand that in public social situations, this ‘honor game’ is being played—constantly.
  • From the perspective of the Arab guys who were hanging around, our car drove up to them; they were asked a question which posed a challenge. Would they have the ability to provide the information needed in order for the people in the car to get to where they wanted to go? Would they know the answer? Would they satisfy the need of the people in the car who were lost? Would they be able to help? Would they pass the test?
  • This “test,” however small to the western mind, nevertheless constituted a genuine challenge to their honor. The young Arab man who answered us felt obligated to respond in such a way that everyone’s honor would be protected, and no one would be shamed—especially he and his friends.
  • In order to preserve their group honor and individual honor (which are inextricably linked), the Arab man invented an answer and gave us information which at best was incomplete, and at worst, completely contrived and wrong. However, while the answer was not accurate, it was given confidently; thus, their honor, individually and collectively, was preserved. Furthermore …
  • In the moment when the Arab guys answered the question, the honor of those in the car—my friends and me—was also preserved. How so? Because we did not have to experience the disappointment/shame of being told, No, we do not know and we cannot help you.

This story represents a social dynamic called “saving face,” because honor is established and maintained in public, face-to-face. In eastern cultures, saving face is as common as breathing—an example of indirect, as opposed to direct, communication.

Peterson’s Five Basic Culture Scales

According to Brooks Peterson in Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People from Other Cultures, there are five basic culture scales. They are: 1) Equality/Hierarchy, 2) Direct/Indirect, 3) Individual/Group, 4) Task/Relationship, and 5) Risk/Caution. Last week, this blog focused on the culture scale of Equality/Hierarchy. In this post, we are looking at Direct/Indirect, which refers to the degree to which people communicate directly or indirectly.

According to Peterson[1], the culture scale of Direct versus Indirect has the following features:

This second culture scale relates to the way people communicate and interact with one another in face-to-face verbal and nonverbal communication and in written communication.

A direct style means people prefer to

  • be more direct in speaking and be less concerned about how something is said,
  • openly confront issues or difficulties,
  • communicate concerns straightforwardly,
  • engage in conflict when necessary,
  • express views or opinions in a frank manner, and
  • say things clearly, not leaving much open to interpretation.

An indirect style means people prefer to

  • focus not just on what is said but on how it is said,
  • discreetly avoid difficult or contentious issues,
  • express concerns tactfully,
  • avoid conflict if at all possible,
  • express views or opinions diplomatically, and
  • count on the listener to interpret meaning.

Using Peterson’s words to add understanding to my story above, we could say that the Arab men who gave incorrect directions were “discreetly avoiding difficult or contentious issues” … “avoiding conflict if at all possible” … “expressing views or opinions diplomatically” … and perhaps, “counting on the listener to interpret meaning.”

In the next post, we will look at an example from Scripture of the use of direct versus indirect communication, and then consider some implications for cross-cultural partnership.

Note: If you want an assessment of your own personal cultural style, go to Brooks Peterson’s web site: accrosscultures.com. Select the link, Begin the Peterson Cultural Style Indicator. You will be able to compare your own cultural style to the general cultural style of the nation where you are engaged in a cross-cultural partnership. There is a fee of $50 for this assessment, but I think it’s an excellent investment in your understanding of the contrast in cultural styles and the adjustments which people on both sides of your partnership may need to make—in order to achieve greater understanding and a more effective partnership.

1. Brooks Peterson: Cultural Intelligence: A Guide to Working with People
from Other Cultures
(Boston: Intercultural Press) 2004, p. 40


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