Tyre, 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?