Understanding the culture scale, Direct/Indirect, through the lens of honor & shame, part 2

Christ healing the withered hand by James Tissot, a classic honor-shame confrontation
Christ Healing the Withered Hand, by James Tissot, showing the public nature of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees

This post is a follow-up to my last entry concerning the five basic culture scales. Our focus here is on the culture scale of Direct/Indirect. My explanation of Direct versus Indirect communication is contained inside of an analysis of a passage from Matthew 12. Since I am trying to explain the basic culture scales through the lens of honor and shame, I also introduce in this post something called the “honor game of challenge and riposte.” I am concerned that this post overlaps several ideas which may be new to you, and therefore may be difficult at first to understand. So read previous posts about honor and shame if you have not already, and read this one with care. I trust it will be worth your while. –wm

Most, if not all, of the interactions recorded in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees—were conducted in public. These interactions, when seen through the cultural lens of honor and shame, follow the rules of the ‘honor game,’ also known as challenge and riposte. (The word ‘riposte’ comes from the sport of fencing; it means “a quick return thrust following a parry.” Socially speaking, a riposte is “a quick clever reply to an insult or criticism.”) According to Jerome Neyrey’s brilliant book, Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew, there are four steps to this protocol or social code of 
“push and shove:”[1]

  1. claim of worth or value,
  2. challenge to that claim or refusal to acknowledge the claim,
  3. riposte or defense of the claim, and
  4. public verdict of success awarded to either claimant or challenger.

In the following example, you’ll see … Jesus’ claim of worth or value … the challenge by the Pharisees to Jesus’ honor … the riposte by Jesus in defense of his claim … and the public verdict. You will also observe that the riposte by Jesus consisted of both direct and indirect communication—in addition to a healing miracle.

For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath. He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath. Then he said to the man, Stretch out your hand. And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known … And all the people were amazed, and said, Can this be the Son of David? (Matthew 12:8–15, 23 ESV)

1. Claim of worth or value: Matthew 12:8 is a claim by Jesus concerning his worth and value. Verses 1–7 of this chapter describes the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees concerning the disciples plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath. Verse 8 is the verdict—“For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”

2. Challenge to that claim or refusal to acknowledge the claim: Verse 10 displays the challenge by the Pharisees to Jesus’ claim. “And they asked him, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?—so that they might accuse him.”

3. Riposte or defense of the claim: Jesus’ riposte, or defense, is in three parts.

First, Jesus uses indirect communication. “He said to them, Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! … ” (v11–12). Jesus paints a picture of a sheep in desperate need rescued by its shepherd—a picture that goes beyond reason to connect heart-to-heart. Jesus answers their challenge indirectly.

Second, Jesus adds a declarative direct response. Jesus says straightforwardly, “So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (v12).

Third, Jesus adds to his words an action—he performs a miracle: “Then he said to the man, Stretch out your hand. And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other” (v13).

This three-part riposte to the Pharisees’ challenge was so powerful that “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (v14). Why were they so enraged? Because their honor and standing in the public sphere took a huge hit, while at the same time, the honor and renown of Jesus was skyrocketing. This led to …

4. Public verdict of success awarded to either claimant or challenger. “And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known … And all the people were amazed, and said, Can this be the Son of David?” (v15, 23). The public verdict of increased honor for Jesus is represented by the words, “And many followed him” and “all the people were amazed.”

What does this understanding about direct and indirect communication mean for the practice of cross-cultural partnership?

The majority of westerners, including Christians, are more comfortable with direct communication. Americans hold people in high esteem who can quickly ‘get to the bottom line who do not ‘beat around the bush.’ Business executives respect employees who are ‘brutally honest.’ Americans often believe it takes too long to tell a whole story to make a point. Just make the point!, we contend.

In contrast, non-western peoples are often more comfortable with indirect than direct communication. Indirect communication includes the practice of storytelling and the use of poetic forms of speech. Indirect communication also means a hesitancy to give bad news. From an honor and shame perspective, this makes perfect sense. The beauty of indirect communication allows individuals to save face when giving bad news. Indirect communication saves face of the one bearing the bad news as well as saving face of the person receiving the news.

Here are some suggestions for western practitioners of cross-cultural partnerships:

  1. Slow down and be extra generous with your time. If you expect to work through an issue of your partnership in 20 minutes, triple it and plan for an hour. Expect indirect communication, and it will take you at least two or three times longer to thoroughly discuss the issue.
  2. Learn to be a good storyteller. Storytellers are highly respected in non-western cultures. If you are a good storyteller, you will use a form of communication that is indirect, and gain favor with your cross-cultural partners and with the individuals and families in their community.
  3. Be gentle when communicating directly. Of course, direct communication is still needed for effective cross-cultural partnerships. But you can communicate in an overbearing manner, or in a gentle, effective manner. Choose the latter by the grace of God.
  4. Use written documents. A written document or partnership agreement is usually a form of direct communication. This can be a helpful tool to review the logistics of the partnership, along with expectations and goals. At the same time, do not use the document as a “hammer” to enforce behavior; instead, use it as a guide that serves your vision to bless the peoples served by the partnership for the glory of God.

1. Jerome H. Neyrey: Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminister Press) 1998, p. 20


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