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Discovering the Honor-Shame Cultural Paradigm

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

a green shoot sprouting from the soil

Musings on the Honor-Shame Paradigm: An exploration of the Honor-Shame Cultural Paradigm, with a view to appreciating its nuances.

Like the Power-Fear and Innocence-Guilt Colors of Worldview, Honor-Shame is discoverable worldwide; but there are regions where it manifests more prominently than in others.

Depending upon your own cultural upbringing and cross-cultural experience, you may have a more negative or more positive impression about each of the Three Colors of Worldview. If your cultural background reflects one or another worldview predominately, the others may strike you as lacking worth, efficacy, relevance, or even moral virtue.

KnowledgeWorkx is geographically based in a predominately Honor-Shame–oriented world—the Gulf countries of the Middle East. And many of our clients are headquartered in or opening branches in other areas—in some parts of Africa and throughout West, Central, and Southeast Asia—places where the Honor-Shame cultural paradigm is either prominent or at least holds strong sway among the other two colors of worldview. Furthermore, with the influx of people from Honor-Shame–oriented countries into other parts of the world, into our educational institutions and corporate workplaces and neighborhoods—there has come to be a rich plethora of ways that the Honor-Shame cultural paradigm is expressed, globally.

In an Honor-Shame–oriented culture, the honor of the family, honor of the tribe, your village, city, the honor of the nation you represent—honor is key. And the avoidance of shame is crucial in the process of advancing and preserving honor.

Both honor and shame are seen as neutral in terms of how you deploy them. If you pursue honor no matter what, of course, there is a challenge there—it is possible to become obsessed with the pursuit of honor, to overuse it, or to misapply its importance. If you are willing to do whatever it takes to avoid shame, you may find yourself in a situation where you actually could incur more shame to yourself because of an excessive focus on avoiding it.

As happens naturally with other cultural paradigms, it is possible to let our emphases shift out of balance.

There is a tendency to get caught up in what “looks like” honor externally and what “seems” honorable to the majority of onlookers, rather than maintaining a constant ideal, an unwavering standard for what constitutes honor, what honor actually and inherently is.

Humans have limitations: We cannot look in on people’s souls. We can read only so deeply into their thoughts and intentions, judging by the outward results, the decisions they make, the actions that they do and words they speak—the actions and words that we are able to see and hear. So we speculate based on what we can discern in spite of our limitations. Whether consciously or not, whether “with a grain of salt” or not, we do tend to judge by appearances. In some cases, because we are limited by our senses—a person’s external comportment, style, clothing, conversation, and facial expressions are all we have to go on!

In our technologically advancing world, we have access to all kinds of information, much of which is commercialized and focused on material goods. Unfortunately, human nature tends to start thinking about value in terms of possessions. If you have things, you must, therefore, be somebody important, someone worthy, someone honorable—and the easy next step is to deem that so-called “honorable” person as someone to be honored.

The shift in focus may seem nuanced, but it is definite and has definite ramifications.

Suddenly, regardless of what we truly know about a person’s inward character, who they are when nobody else is around, what actions and words come out when nobody else is there to see or hear—that person is someone we assume is honorable and therefore to be honored. We start mistaking the presupposed “fruits of” an honorable life for actual honor. We start treating external signs of honor as interchangeable with genuine honor itself.

That idea that when you have things, you can be somebody—it takes honor from being something intrinsic that lives inside of you or something that comes from being in close familial or covenant association with a group, and pulls it away and down into being something that you can accrue or earn independently and apply to yourself extrinsically.

That all-too-easy blurring of the lines between intrinsic and extrinsic honor presents a major dilemma that immediately influences identity, and how identity is shaped.

Of course, most people with an Honor-Shame background would hope that honor is something that is inherent and inherently valuable, something that is cultivated from within you—not something that is created only by the outward perception that people have of you.

In light of that blurry dilemma between extrinsically-valuable honor (as perceived by others) and intrinsically-valuable honor (as it exists, whether people are around to see it or not), there is a real need to consider the question of “What IS honor, really?”

As a parent, how do you train your children to live in honor, to own the honor of their own identity, of their family? How do you help them become truly honorable individuals? How do you help them learn to examine themselves and to gauge accurately so they can know whether they are indeed honorable? Or if not, so they can know what they need to do to correct themselves, to avoid shame, and to pursue an honorable life daily?

As a corporate leader or an international educator, how do you define honor in the first place? How do you determine ways for your employees and pupils to demonstrate honor on a day-to-day basis? How do you decide what is or isn’t an excessive focus on pursuing honor or avoiding shame in a workplace or school environment? How do you encourage your employees and colleagues and faculty and students to behave honorably in any given circumstance, at all times—whether someone is observing you or not, and regardless of whether someone knows whose son or daughter you are?

These are important problems to consider, especially when coaching multicultural teams and training future global leaders. The next article on Applying the Honor-Shame Cultural Paradigm will address these and other potential applications for advancing honor and avoiding shame in healthy, productive scenarios.

How do I find out my own Colors of Worldview?

For those who want to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Honor-Shame cultural paradigm, KnowledgeWorkx has published several articles that explore all three of the Colors of Worldview in-depth or see how this fits into the broader framework of culture. If you would like to learn about your own color(s), check out this opportunity to discover your own Three Colors of Worldview profile, and get a personalized report:


This is just one piece of KnowledgeWorkx' core framework. View the whole framework: here.

KnowledgeWorkx helps you gain an understanding of other cultures and perspectives in the workplace, and helps teams to develop the intercultural capacity necessary to thrive in a globalized world.



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