Reputation In A Community Oriented Culture

mKhaledTyre, Lebanon – circa August 2000

“You owe me $60.” My landlady stopped me on the street, less than a block away from the apartment I rented from her.

“Excuse me? I don’t understand,” I said. “I paid you yesterday.”

She’d come to the flat with her son, while I was there with my friend, Hassan. We all stood inside the front door as I counted out $900 USD in twenty-dollar bills – three months’ rent. She’d smiled and placed the money back in the envelope without counting it herself before going on her way.

This morning she wasn’t smiling. She explained, “This morning when I went to the bank to deposit the money, there was only $840 in the envelope you gave me.”

I looked around. She was speaking passionately, and we were attracting the attention of the neighbors. I lowered the volume of my own voice. “I counted the money out in front of you. You saw it was all there.”

“Then where’s the other sixty dollars?” She persisted. When I told her I shouldn’t have to pay, she started shouting. I was relieved when her son calmed her down and we postponed the confrontation.

What Will People Think?

As a Jesus-following American living in mostly Muslim Tyre I had to work at overcoming a lot of misconceptions about westerners. Now it appeared my reputation was in jeopardy over a misunderstanding. This woman’s normal neighborly conversations would brand me as a thief if I didn’t respond carefully.

Since I was worried about the perspective of the community, I decided to involve the community in solving the dilemma. I dropped in on my jeweler friend, Khaled, who had originally arranged the rental agreement. My landlady was a cousin of his.

Deferring the Responsibility of Saving Face to a Respected Third Party

Rather than being annoyed by my troubles, he was honored by being asked to mediate. He listened patiently over a glass of tea in his shop.

“I know I paid the full amount, and I have two witnesses that saw me count the money. But now it doesn’t seem that I can win in this situation. If I pay her, I lose sixty dollars, and that’s not right. If I refuse to pay her, then she will talk about me behind my back in the neighborhood. She’ll say that I cheated her.”

I paused to take a sip of tea and then continued. “It’s already hard for me to fit in around here as a foreigner, and I don’t want my reputation to be ruined.  Will you talk to her? If you say I should pay her, I will. I’ll do whatever you say is right.

“Don’t worry about this, Hadi,” he said, using my Arabic nickname. “I’ll talk to her.”

The very next day, he called me back into his shop as I was passing by. He assured me that I didn’t need to pay her anything more, and she promised not to say anything bad about me to anyone.

Wow. Just like that [sound of fingers snapping], the problem was eliminated.

Which Cultural Perspective is Better? Who is Right?

In western countries, using an intermediary to resolve disputes seems cowardly and evasive. It’s honorable to be direct in confrontation. Is that truly the better way to be?

I wonder if our communities would be stronger if we cared more about preserving honor and reputation, both for others and ourselves.

What do you think? Does the thought of deferring to the judgment of the community offend your sense of independence? Are you already fed up with worrying about what other people think?


Relational Reciprocity

AbuAhmeed“I need to borrow fifty dollars,” Abu Ahmeed explained.

He described how expensive schoolbooks for his kids were. He could buy the books used, but he had to pay all at once for his three children.

I had rehearsed how I would say, “No,” to such requests, but hesitated.

I squirmed in the plastic chair in his tiny storefront tailor shop. My Lebanese neighbors believed that all Americans were rich. It was hard to convince them that I was the only exception to that rule. Requests from them for financial help were numerous.

Abu Ahmeed went back to hemming the cuffs of a pair of suit pants that a neighboring clothing merchant had just dropped off. He was promised a dollar or two for the work, but they only paid once in awhile at their own convenience.

Some days at lunchtime, he’d open the cash drawer in his sewing machine table and hand over his entire earnings for the morning so his kids could eat a sandwich. Abu Ahmeed inspired me with his trust that God would take care of his family, though their survival was day to day.

I knew this because I was a daily visitor, trying to learn Arabic. Abu Ahmeed had agreed to let me practice the vocabulary I was learning with him.  My pathetic language learning abilities demanded herculean patience. Frankly, if the roles had been reversed, I couldn’t have tolerated the tedium the way he did.

Abu Ahmeed never thought to ask me to pay him for his language tutoring. We were friends and he wanted to help me. That’s what brothers do for each other in community. After months of gleaning a word at a time, I was finally able to carry on a basic conversation.

“I’ll go to the bank and get the money this afternoon,” I said. “And if you want to pay me back, you can.” I didn’t want an outstanding loan to mess up our friendship, and I also didn’t want to damage his self-respect. Abu Ahmeed’s request was isolated, and I felt privileged by his trust in me to not embarrass him by gossiping about his situation in the neighborhood.

How Can We Be Friends?

I have this theory that you can’t have a real friendship if each friend isn’t prepared to both give and receive from the other in roughly equal proportions. This is especially true in cultures that are based on an honor/shame paradigm.

My Muslim friends always welcomed me with the Arabic greeting, “Ahlan wa sahlan.” The literal translation of this phrase is a testament to the desire for equality. It means, “You’re part of the family, and their are no hills between us.” Where the ground is flat, we have equal footing.

Giving Too Much

It’s good to be generous. But if one gives too much, there comes a point where the inability to reciprocate becomes unsavory for the one receiving. Never having an opportunity to give back creates shame instead of gratitude in the heart of the receiver.

Receiving Too Much

Nobody wants to be friends with a leach. On the other hand, refusing to receive anything from friends makes them feel devalued.

I think the theory of relational reciprocity applies to interactions between cultures as well as to individuals. Do you think it also has implications for the level of intimacy that can be acheived with our creator?