Honor and Emotion

This paper discusses honor and its effects on emotion. The paper is divided into two parts. In the first part, the definition of honor is discussed. This section answers the questions ‘what is honor,’ and ‘are there different types of honor?’ Later, there is an overview on the ways in which honor influences emotional experiences and expressions. Throughout the paper, conclusions are reached based on honor and emotion research in Mediterranean, Northern European, North American and Middle-Eastern cultures.

Imagine as a 7-year-old not knowing the meaning of the word shame. This would seem rather improbable to you if you were raised in a culture that values honor. Growing up, you most likely heard some variation of the word every day from parents, teachers, or siblings. However, this familiarity with shame does not extend to all cultures. For example, research has shown that Dutch children seem to learn about the emotion much later than Spanish children.

A cross-cultural study on emotional narratives asked 7-year-old Spanish and Dutch children to describe situations in which they felt shame. While Spanish children gave full narratives of the antecedents and consequences of shame, the Dutch children reported not knowing the meaning of shame (Rodriguez Mosquera, Manstead, & Fischer, 2000). The Dutch children were neither less educated nor less intelligent than their Spanish peers; rather, they were from a culture that emphasizes different values. The Spanish children knew more about shame because this emotion improves social relations in the honor-oriented culture in which they live. Since we typically feel shame in response to a moral wrongdoing (Gausel & Leach, 2011; Smith, Webster, Parrott, & Eyre, 2002; Tangney & Dearing, 2002), expressing our shame to others is like an apology: we communicate our desire for others to forgive us and think well of us. Because honor is dependent on a good reputation, shame has a positive function for those who value honor.

The Nature of Honor

For some, honor may be an old-fashioned notion, a remnant of a distant past when men responded swiftly to minimal affronts to their manliness and women fought to remain chaste and pure. Still, beyond images of duels and chivalry, honor remains important in many contemporary cultures. Honor is a complex system of values, norms, and practices organized around four themes. These four themes create four types of honor, or honor codes: morality-based, family-based, feminine, and masculine honor (see e.g., Abu-Lughod, 1999; Gilmore, 1987; Jakubowska, 1989; Peristiany, 1965). We will describe next each of these honor codes, and how they vary across cultures and gender.

Morality-based honor

The nature of morality-based honor is encapsulated in Shakespeare’s famous quote: “Honesty is the best policy. If I lose mine honor, I lose myself.” Indeed, morality-based honor is centered on honesty and trust, and is the most universal type of honor. This is demonstrated by the fact that it is equally valued in Spanish, Dutch, Pakistani, and European-American culture.

In one study, Spanish and Dutch adults were asked to complete the honor scale, a psychological instrument that measures the extent to which an individual values each type of honor (Rodriguez Mosquera, Manstead, & Fischer, 2002a). The scale includes 24 items that describe behaviors and reputations that violate the honor codes. Participants are asked to report ‘how bad they would feel about themselves’ if they exhibited behavior or had the reputation described in each item. Morality-based honor is measured with items such as “you had the reputation of being dishonest to others” or “you lied to others.” The Spanish and Dutch participants both reported feeling very bad in response to items involving immoral behavior and items in which they were known as being immoral. Furthermore, the same pattern of results emerged when comparing the scores of Pakistani and European-American adults on the morality-based honor items of the honor scale (Rodriguez Mosquera, Tan, & Saleem, 2011). They, too, felt very bad in response to violations of morality-based honor.

In fact, this type of honor is so important that we educate our children to care about honesty from a very young age. A cross-cultural study in Spain and the Netherlands asked hundreds of children (7- and 12-year-olds), adolescents (17-year-olds) and adults (23-year-olds) to describe the meaning of honor (Rodriguez Mosquera, Manstead, & Fischer, 2002b). Across cultural groups and sexes, integrity was referred to as one of the most important bases of honor. Even the 7-year-olds mentioned it. Indeed, they told their interviewers that honor is about keeping your word and telling the truth.

Family-based honor

Family honor shows the greatest cross-cultural variation. This type of honor is based on the reputation of a family as a collective. The family’s collective reputation is, in turn, dependent on each individual family member’s behavior. A family member can either enhance the family’s honor, or bring dishonor to the family (see e.g., Abu-Lughod, 1999; Gilmore, 1987; Peristiany, 1965; Pitt-Rivers, 1965; Uskul, Cross, Sunbay, Gercek-Swing, & Ataca, in press; Wikan, 1984). The items of the honor scale that measure family honor reflect this interdependence between individual and family reputation; for example, “How bad about yourself would you feel if your family had a bad reputation?” or ““How bad about yourself would you feel if you did something to damage your family’s reputation?” Several studies have shown that family honor is especially important in Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures.

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