Honor Looks Different in Different Parts of the World


Many cultures see honor as the primary goal of life, something that embeds one’s self-worth with the worth of one’s family and friends, and is bestowed by the community. Other cultures place more emphasis on honor coming from the inside instead of others. Now studies of Americans and Turks illustrate the differences but also some similarities.

Social scholars have long identified so-called “honor cultures,” places where prestige and respect are hard to gain and easy to lose. In such cultures, folks are very aware of how their actions could impact their honor and the honor of their family. Reputation is more of a group quality, rather than something an individual has. Both your daughter’s blooming new career and your brother-in-law’s regrettable debts can affect your standing.

More recently, these have been contrasted with “dignity cultures,” said Susan Cross, a psychologist at Iowa State University. Individuals in the Northern U.S., for instance, are thought to get self-worth from their beliefs about themselves.

“Some have described dignity cultures as people having a strong, sturdy, interior sense of worth,” said Cross. “Whereas in honor cultures, worth comes from outside.”

Testing these conclusions in the Northern U.S. and Turkey, Cross and company wanted to find out how people think about honor and how it operates in different situations. What do people think honor is anyway? How does it make them feel?

They set out to answer these questions by asking Turks and Americans what kinds of situations would threaten or enhance their honor.

The responses differed in many ways. Northern Americans were more likely to focus on criticism of character or integrity, while Turks were more likely to bring up false accusations like cheating and physical or sexual attacks.

“When we asked about things that would enhance honor, the Turks mentioned more achievement sorts of things,” Cross said. “They were a little more likely to mention public praise, someone pointing out your good characteristics. Americans, interestingly, were more likely to mention helping other people.”

Getting shoes shined in Gelibolu, Turkey. Image: Alaskan Dude.

Getting shoes shined in Gelibolu, Turkey. Image: Alaskan Dude.

Then, a new batch of participants were asked how they would feel in those honor-charged situations. Just as predicted, Turks thought threats to their honor would also harm their friends and family. Americans not as much.

But that doesn’t mean concepts of honor are completely alien. In fact, in another study, Cross found the same basic dimensions of honor operating in both Turkey and America: concerns for self-respect, for social respect/status and for having good moral behavior.

All cultures probably share those broad dimensions of honor, but express and emphasize them differently.

The question of why we have honor in the first place is also interesting.

“One theory comes from Dov Cohen. He and his colleagues argue that honor cultures arise in environments where, number one, there’s little state policing – so there’s not much state control over people’s [anti-social] behavior – and number two, a person’s livelihood can be easily stolen.

“In these kinds of environments, which are largely pastoral, (think of the Old West and John Wayne movies), if someone steals your livestock and there’s no sheriff to go after them, you’re in trouble.”

As a result, a tough, trustworthy, honorable orientation may have arose to retaliate against threats.

“If you’re trustworthy, you’ll be able to engage in negotiations and interactions with others,” she said. “If you’re perceived as honorable, people will know that you will retaliate against any threat.

“Dignity cultures are largely in the Northern U.S., Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand,” Cross said. “Latin America has been described as an honor culture. The Mediterranean is traditionally described as an honor culture as is I believe much of the Mideast.

“There are probably many more people living in honor cultures than dignity cultures.”

The study, “Honor Bound: The Cultural Construction of Honor in Turkey and the Northern United States,” was published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

Featured Image: A friendly family from Cappadocia in Central Turkey. Credit: Jan Cadoret.