You may think that honor and aggression are closely linked. In this contribution I will paint a more nuanced picture, and show that honor is also linked to politeness and constructive conflict management.
Popular media often stereotypically portray people from honor cultures as ready to blow up at the slightest provocation. Meanwhile, tourists visiting countries with honor cultures (e.g., Mediterranean countries, the South of the USA or the Middle East) may have experienced generous hospitality and friendly treatment from the locals. My personal experience with students with an honor-culture background is that they are friendly, polite, and obliging. Yet in the media the general impression of the hot-tempered individual with an honor-culture background tends to persist. So, do honor cultures produce rude or polite people? The answer to this question may just lie in the so-called “paradox of politeness”, which illustrates how constructive conflict behavior in one culture can be threatening in other cultures.
The conflict behavior of people from honor cultures is shaped by two important characteristics . First, people in honor cultures care a lot about their reputation; their personal worth and self-esteem depends partly on the respect and esteem they receive from other people in their society. Second, people in honor cultures, especially males, need to be able to defend and protect their family, their property, and their reputation. If a man is treated disrespectfully, for example when he or his family is insulted, it is important for him to restore his image as someone who needs to be treated respectfully. On occasions, this respectful treatment may be enforced by violent repercussions.
A consequence of this potential danger of offending someone, however, is that people from honor cultures tend to treat each other with care, respect and politeness. Not offending and not provoking another person is very important, because the consequences of an (unintended) offense can be quite severe. So, when people from an honor culture are faced with a situation in which they are annoyed by someone, they will first try to smooth out this situation in a non-offensive way, for example by ignoring the annoyance or by exhibiting subtle indications suggesting their disagreement. The positive side of this approach is that mild annoyances are smoothed over, and no one needs to be upset by facing an angry or annoyed person. The downside is that the annoyance might not be solved, and instead may fester until it becomes so big that escalation is inevitable.
This polite and conflict-avoiding approach is very different from the traditional Dutch way of handling an annoying situation. When Dutch people are annoyed or provoked by something, they will let you know soon enough (Doe zelf eens normaal!). The Dutch tend to be open and direct, and they will try to correct a situation which they do not like, and tend to do so the moment they are annoyed by it. The positive side of this approach is that annoyances do not fester and tend to be dealt with before the situation escalates. The downside is that the Dutch directness can be experienced as rude and impolite.
We have found this pattern of culturally incompatible conflict behavior in our own research (Harinck, Shafa, Ellemers & Beersma, in press) and in others’ work on honor culture and conflict management. In fact, our results show that people from honor cultures have a stronger intention to solve conflicts cooperatively than Dutch people. However, they have different ways to do so. For example, honor people may prefer to politely ignore the conflict - as shown in the work by Cohen et al. (1999). Alternatively, they may send out subtle cues intended to address the issue without explicit reference to the conflict. However, native Dutch may not pick up such signs of a conflict-avoiding approach when they are dealing with a person from an honor-culture background. In the Dutch culture it is common to talk about a conflict and for the conflict parties to openly discuss the issue in order to find a solution. Dutch people consider this method to be the standard way to solve a conflict and expect it from others as well. This approach, however, might seem less constructive or even somewhat confrontational to people from honor cultures. An open discussion of different views implies that the conflict is acknowledged, which might still be too threatening for them. In fact, intercultural miscommunications are likely to emerge when Dutch persons fail to realize that the very behavior that they see as constructive might be considered offensive or threatening by honor culture people.
In sum, I think the view of people from honor cultures as people who blow up at the slightest provocation should be moderated. Their first approach to a conflict, actual or potential, is probably more constructive and conflict-avoidant than we think, if only we noticed.
Update April 15 2013: Fieke Harinck talked with Abdelkader Benali about this blog in the radio 1 program ‘Pavlov’. Listen to the podcast.