Intercultural Note #1

Just a quick post to share a couple of the many intercultural lessons we have been learning. I will continue to do so over the next several months.  Some will be gleaned from real-life experience, others from what people tell us/teach us.  It seems as though there is no end of opinion about the differences between Jordanian culture and American-type cultures.  We have received a lot of anecdotal advice from anyone who has been in country over 2 months, but also some really good teaching from people in the country for decades.

Hear are a couple of things gleaned recently from a lecture given by one of the latter. He was reflecting on the influences of bedouin culture on people who may not be living as bedouins today, but still retain certain cultural practices even though they may not know why.

  • Place of Honor – The most important guest should be seated in the chair (or preferably couch) farthest from the door.  A few people have told us this.  This seems to indicate prominence.  But it also seems to have something to do with you as host giving that person some comfort and security.  In bedouin times this seat would be farthest from the flap of the tent and the elements and intruders perhaps.
  • Standing to Greet Guests – It is customary for all people seated in the room to stand and greet a new guest who has arrived whether you know them or not.  This is apparently true when visiting in people’s homes, but I have also witnessed the phenomenon in the mobile shop and the carpet store.  I always thought this was just another marker of the politeness connected to social gatherings in this culture; however, there is deeper significance.  This custom also makes it easier for the seating of guests to be reshuffled in case a more important guest arrives and should be in the place of honor.  The relative importance of seats (and people) flows away from the place of honor.  Doesn’t this cultural fact give so much richness to the following saying of Jesus:

When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”      – Jesus in Luke 14:8-10

  • Giving Stuff to Those Who Admire It: I have often heard it said not to admire anything of your host’s because they will give it to you.  Or, if someone admires something of yours that you should give it to them. This is a funny one, because I have heard this many, many times but have never seen it in action.  It is a very common piece of cross-cultural training for anyone going to the Middle East.  But, truly, I’ve never witnessed it take place.  But the origin of this is interesting – the lecturer said that for a Bedouin the only thing they truly possess is their honor.  They typically have very little stuff, and what they do have is fleeting.   But honor is lasting and is passed down from generation to generation.  Someone from a bedouin background can deal with something happening to their stuff – but never their honor.

Does honor play a role in American culture back in the States?  Certainly not to this extent.  Or maybe it’s just different.  Maybe we honor our guests by letting them sit wherever they want and drink whatever they want (Serving food and beverage is a whole other post).  Being free to choose is so important to Americans, but seems less so here.  Honor and status play such a very important part here in our new culture.  The tricky part is learning what brings honor and what doesn’t as such different cultural values are in play!

As always I would love your thoughts, questions, and feedback, esp. as it relates to the place honor/shame play in your own culture.  And please, if any Jordanians are reading – give your feedback on the cultural points above. Are they accurate?

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One Response

  1. I don’t have anything constructive to add, but I wanted to say thank you for posting this. It DOES in fact enlighten me to the scripture you mentioned about the seat of honor. It gives it much more context than I think I would ever have known otherwise. Thank you!

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