Honour & respect are culturally bound

Honouring one another is most definitely a biblical concept. Depending on which version you read, Romans 12:10b is rendered:

“Take the lead in honoring one another.” – CSB

“Honor one another above yourselves.” – NIV

“Outdo one another in showing honor.” – ESV, HCSB

“give preference to one another in honor” – NASB

“take delight in honoring each other.” – NLT

But you get the picture. What is clear is that honouring one another is important. Indeed, the context of this half-verse is loving one another with real love. And so honouring one another genuinely is an outworking of our love for one another.

So far, no problem. The Bible calls us all to honour one another. There it is, black and white. Simple.

Only, it’s not so simple, is it? I don’t mean honouring people in general. That’s fine. I mean, what does it actually mean to honour somebody? Well, the word honour means to greatly respect or esteem. So to honour others more than yourself, or to show another honour, is to show them great respect and esteem.

Okay, problem solved, right? This is calling us to respect others above ourselves. We can do that. This’ll be easy, won’t it?

Only, it’s not so easy. Again, I don’t mean in principle. Honouring other people – showing them respect – is not so hard. But how do we show respect? How do we honour somebody? Here’s where it gets tricky. We all know how we would like to be honoured, and respected, but we tend not to know quite so well how other people will regard honour and respect. If we make ourselves the measure of honour and respect – this is how I would like someone to honour me (should they wish to do that) – we may inadvertently end up disrespecting another person who considers our attempt to honour them, ironically, disrespectful.

I think this is true on a personal basis within cultures. I know the whole love-language stuff often gets a kicking – and it is not without its problems – but if it has a helpful insight to give us, and I think it does, it is that showing love to someone else might require me to do something that I wouldn’t love. Loving other people in ways that connect might not be what I want somebody to do to express their love for me. Likewise, if I make myself the measure of what showing love must look like – that is, I like to be loved like this so biblical commands to show love must mean doing that – we are likely to end up “loving” people in ways that they don’t really love at all. Indeed, it is almost a selfish love that makes the way I like being loved the objective measure of what love actually is.

When we think of this within a similar culture, we can easily see how it might play out between husband and wife. Me and my wife come from the same ethnic and national culture. We are both white Brits, born and raised in Britain. There are regional and class differences, but leaving those things aside, we are from the same broad culture. Yet my wife likes to be honoured and respected in ways that are quite different to me. She hears my love best when I say it, out loud, with words whereas I operate on a words-are-cheap principle. It doesn’t make either one of us right or wrong, just different. I don’t feel loved by hearing words, I feel more loved by actions. We love, and prefer to receive love, in different ways. Both of us ought to recognise how the other displays love, so we can see when the other is loving us as they express it. Both of us should try and take account for how the other operates and try to express our love for the other as they would prefer, centring our love not on ourselves but on them as best we can.

That is important when it comes to the question of honouring one another because this command to honour one another comes in the context of what true love looks like. It is an outworking of the command to love one another with genuine love. But just as genuine love will be expressed differently by different persons, and received differently by others, so honour – if it is an outworking of love – will be similar. That necessarily means the way I might like to be honoured and respected is not necessarily how others may want to be honoured and respected. And in the most unfortunate examples, what we think is honouring and respectful might inadvertently prove to be dishonouring and lacking respect altogether.

But this is probably seen more clearly across cultures. In the UK, for example, it is seen as honouring to tip your waiter in a restaurant. This is slightly different to tipping cultures that see it as a top-up to a (potentially) insufficient salary. In the UK, tips are reserved for those who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. We honour them by quietly giving them a tip. In Japan, by contrast, this would be seen as an insult. In some places, it can be taken as a sign you are looking down on somebody. The same act, intended to be honouring, can be disrespectful in another.

Similarly, cultures can be asking or guessing cultures. In an asking culture, you simply ask someone for something, or to do something, expecting them to answer frankly as to whether they are happy to do so. In guessing cultures, however, the person asking must first guess whether asking would put the person they are asking in an awkward position. My friend, Luke Plant, explains asking and guessing cultures in his blog this way:

Suppose you need to get somewhere, and you want to borrow my car. If you are from an asking culture, you would just ask, and if I didn’t want to lend it, I’d say no. But in guessing cultures like Britain, what you must first do is guess if I’d be willing. Of course, you might not know, so then what you do is drop hints, like “I need to get to XXX, public transport round here sucks”, and I might say “Oh that’s such a shame!” But I might say “Why don’t you borrow my car?”

At this point, you might think “Mission accomplished!”, but you’d be wrong! Of course it’s not that simple, don’t be silly. If you just say “Oh thanks”, then you can expect some stammering and backtracking. When I offered you my car, I wasn’t actually being genuine! Haha, as if I’d just let you use my car!

The important thing to a Brit, you see, is not to be generous, but to appear generous. If you ask for my car, and I don’t want to lend you it (which of course I don’t) then I’ll have to say no, which makes me look bad, and that means you are being rude.

And for the same reason, you mustn’t just accept my possibly-fake offer — you have to guess whether it is genuine, perhaps by refusing and waiting for me to insist.

But my insistence might be fake too, haha! Since we Brits have been doing this dance for so very long now, if I don’t pretend to insist at least once, it’s obvious that I’m tight-fisted, so I have to do that, and you have to keep on guessing.

Got it?

What Luke doesn’t explain – because it would take forever and it didn’t serve the purpose of his particular post – is that is makes it very difficult for Brits to be genuine in any offer of help. People rarely want to ask anything in case it puts people in a difficult position and, on the rare occasions they do and we actually do want to help, we have to spend forever insisting and insisting we really want to help before anybody actually believes us! I say ‘we’, the other factor here is class culture. What is being described here is middle-class British culture, which is the dominant culture of the UK. In working-class cultures, asking and frankness are much more common.

The other major driver of British culture is being embarrassed. This is the gravest of all possible circumstances. This is why our comedy largely revolves around thoroughly awkward situations – it is a Brit’s worst nightmare, and so very funny to see the lengths to which we go to avoid them and also funny to us when there are people who don’t play by the rules and seem to blunder into deeply awkward situations.

But what has all that asking, guessing and embarrassment got to do with honour? Well, it means a whole host of things. First, it means if you want to honour me, you have to guess that your means of honouring me will actually be well received. Otherwise, your effort to honour me will actually be embarrassing. And given being embarrassed is the very worst thing you can do to a British person, your effort to honour me has not only failed to bring respect, but inadvertently achieves the polar opposite by visiting the shame of public embarrassment upon me. As I think about it, we are embarrassed to be publicly paraded as an example of a complete idiot in public (that, I don’t think, is very abnormal). But we are also embarrassed to be hailed as a brilliant example in public too. The former is unpleasantly shameful whereas the the latter (to a Brit) feels shamefully arrogant. The safest way to play these things is to outdo one another in showing honour in private. Brits value that biblical principle that means their right hand does not know what their left is doing.

By contrast, the American culture of public spoken honour in front of others is deemed properly honouring. Indeed, to not publicly voice your honour in front of others may well be deemed disrespectful. To never honour people publicly would be tantamount to dishonour. When I was at a church in the US, I saw this in action. To a British eye, it was a thorough-going love-fest that felt over the top. To do that in the same way in the UK would feel embarrassing for all involved. But none of the Americans there seemed to bat an eyelid. This was genuinely honourable and expressed genuine respect.

None of that is to say any of these things are the right or wrong way to show honour. Nor is it to say any of us have cultural grounds to buck the biblical command to show honour to one another. But it is to say, however we seek to show honour, what is honourable and respectful will necessarily be culturally bound. If we want to love our brothers and sisters with the genuine love scripture calls us to do, we must honour them in culturally sensitive ways. We must think less about how I want to show love and honour and more – if honour is really the goal – about whether the one I want to honour will be honoured by this. And honour, by its nature, is bound up in what the community finds honourable. Honour is necessarily rooted in culture. Which is to say, in the final analysis, unless we understand the culture we are in we are unlikely to show much honour at all. By the same token, unless we recognise this dynamic, we are going to miss a lot of other people trying to honour us which means we ought to look at the heart of those seeking to love and honour us as Jesus commands.