Home > Uncategorized > Shame and honor at work in other cultures by Roland Muller

Shame and honor at work in other cultures by Roland Muller

The “guilt/innocence” perspective in which westerners live dictates much of our thinking in the west. However, not everyone in the world operates within this paradigm.

While living in the Middle East, I noticed that when the lifeguard at a swimming pool blew his whistle, the westerners all stopped to see who was guilty, but the Arabs kept right on swimming. As I observed this and other phenomena, I began to realize that Arabs and Arab society were operating in another whole dimension.

Guilt did not have the same power and influence as it did in the west.

While they were aware of guilt, it didn’t have the same strong connotations for them as it had for me.

If a policeman pulled me over, I immediately felt guilty, thinking that perhaps I had done something wrong. But when my Arab friends were pulled over, they didn’t display any sign of guilt. They talked boldly to the policeman, and even argued loudly with him over the issues at hand.

It was only after many years of living in a Muslim culture that it started to dawn on me that the Arabs around me were not operating on a level of guilt versus innocence. Nor were they operating in a fear versus power paradigm. I had heard much about this from missionaries living in Africa but it didn’t seem to apply to the Arabs of the Levant.

Rather, I discovered that Arabs were living in a worldview where the predominant paradigm was shame versus honor.

Every part of the Muslim culture I lived in was based on honor and shame.

When I visited my friends I could honor them in the way I acted. They could honor me, in the way they acted. Three cups of coffee bestowed honor on me. The first, called ‘salam’ (peace) was followed by ‘sadaqa’ (friendship), and the third cup of coffee was called ‘issayf’ (the sword). The meaning was clear in their culture. When I arrived I was offered a cup of coffee that represented peace between us. As we drank and talked, the cup of friendship was offered. The last cup, the sword, illustrated their willingness to protect me and stand by me. It didn’t matter if I was right or wrong, they were bound by their honor to protect me.

In order for shame-based cultures to work, shame and honor are usually attached to something greater than the individual. Honor is almost always placed on a group. This can be the immediate family, the extended tribe, or in some cases, as large as an entire nation; as was demonstrated in Japan just previous to World War Two.

Muslim men use this rationalization when living in what they consider an immoral western nation. They can partake in drinking alcohol and sexual escapades, because the society they are living in doesn’t define this as shameful. Something may be shameful at home, but when in different circumstances, the Arab may react differently. There is a proverb that states, “Where you are not known do what ever you like.”

The possibility of failure in some way also fills Arabs with dread, as failure leads to shame. So often an Arab will shrink from accepting challenges or responsibilities.


In most Muslim cultures, hospitality is one of the most important ways of showing honor. Hospitality honors the guest and covers up any shame the host may have. When you visit an Arab home, great effort is made to be hospitable. Rather than shame you, Arabs try very hard to honor you with hospitality. Everything is done to honor the guest and to present an honorable image of the Arab family.

The reverse is also true. If you don’t want someone to visit you, simply talk to him or her outside your door, where everyone will see that they are not invited inside. They will immediately feel shamed and will not return to your home.

If hospitality is first, then flattery must be second in the Arab ways of honoring someone. Arabs are often quick to flatter people they suspect as being honorable. It is a way of pouring extra honor onto a person while demonstrating to others around that they are honoring that person.

Third on my list is gift giving. If you admire something in an Arab home, they will be quick to insist that you have it as a gift. Even if you do not admire something, they will offer you gifts, demonstrating their willingness to honor someone else with a gift.

Roland Muller


Even the most hard-headed American commanders have lost interest in trying to blast Iraqi insurgents into submission. Now, the focus is on winning the hearts and minds of the people – so they’ll give up the insurgents living in their midst.

There are all kinds of operations underway to do this. A typical one went down the other day in Fallujah, when a group of Marines and Iraqi policemen took to the streets, to hand out soccer balls and bags of food.

The first thing Mac (“Mac” McCallister, a consultant working for the Marines) tells military leaders coming into the area is to focus on shame and honor, not hearts and minds.

“I, as an individual, may want that kid to have a soccer ball. But consider the effect, okay?” he says.

Shame and honor are “limited resources,” Mac explains. “They’re exchanged like currency. And it’s a zero sum game. If I embarrass you, I take some of your honor, and you give me some of your shame. Now you want to do something to get it back.

“The father, off to the side, is thinking, ‘Hey, that’s my job.’ So you’ve shamed him. He might also know that the kid doesn’t deserve it. Shamed him again. And if you give the ball to the little kid, he could get beat up, since the bigger ones prey on the littler ones. More shame. So does that father grab an Ak-47 and do a drive-by, to get back some of his honor?”

Shame and Honor in Iraq

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. October 29, 2008 at 2:38 PM

    Very interesting stuff. All of us who work cross-culturally need to be highly aware of the worldview people operate out of. A lot of America’s problems with the global community are linked to these very issues you write about as we seek to impose our understanding of the world against those of other peoples.

  2. October 29, 2008 at 11:57 PM

    Good stuff.

  3. July 4, 2010 at 7:11 PM

    This article is an excerpt from the book: “The Messenger, the Message and the Community.” It is available from: http://rmuller.com.

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