People from around the world are relocating and beginning the next season of their lives in nearly every local community in America.  The majority of these new neighbors speak a language other English in their homes and they navigate life through religious and cultural values that are substantially different than most Americans.

For some people, the reality of the changing ethnic landscape that they now live within is scary and something to be resisted at all costs.  For others, the opportunity their presence provides for personal interaction is exhilarating and exciting.

Whatever a person’s response is to this new context they live their day-to-day lives in, there’s a great benefit to be gained by taking the time to understand the fundamental differences between American culture and the cultures of their fellow residents that have come from around the globe.

Helping Americans understand that their culture is strongly individualistic (and guilt oriented) is fairly easy to do.  What is much more difficult is helping them understand that most of their new neighbors come from strongly collectivistic cultures (and therefore are honor-shame oriented).

As strange as it may sound, the U.S. military, (regardless of the specific branch), provides a very effective illustration for helping Americans understand what a collectivistic culture is and the honor and shame dynamics that influence almost every facet of life.


1. A shared willingness to die for a cause larger than personal interests

Every member of the group has taken an oath to obey their superiors whose ultimate obedience is to the Commander-in-Chief.  They know that their obedience to accomplish a purpose larger than their own interests, could cost them their lives.

Regardless of their education, social status, or monetary status, this shared value produces deep tethers of connection and a unique level of bonding with the others that have sworn to do the same thing.

2. Group identity is primary

One of the primary purposes of basic training in any branch of the military is to demolish a number of foundational American cultural values and then construct and instill collectivistic cultural values that are essential for accomplishing the purpose for which the military exists.  

From the first day of basic training forward, the root of hyper-individualism and the self-expression, self-fulfillment, and self-promotion that are its fruits are methodically stripped away from each recruit and replaced.

3. Acceptance of an assigned role

Although they are tested and select an occupation within the military based on their tests scores, they understand that their superiors reserve the right to move them in to a role they didn’t select.  

If their superiors determine that the success of the mission can be increased by moving them in to a role that they didn’t sign up for, they accept the new role, confident that by doing so the mission is more likely to be accomplished successfully.

4. Interdependence is fundamental.

From day one, the new recruit is reminded that they have become a part of a group that requires them to be dependent on others, and others dependent on them, for the accomplishment of the mission and the preservation of as many lives as possible.  This transition from believing that dependence and interdependence are weaknesses to understanding and living as if they are virtues is essential.


1.Honor is the military’s operating system

Because the group’s very existence is for a cause larger than the interests of any individual member, honor is achieved through diligence; reliability; loyalty; obedience to orders; and action risks personal safety for the good of others and the accomplishment of the mission.  The honor system is taught to every new member and then caught by them as they live life as a member of the branch of service.

2. There are visible symbols and actions that display honor

An individual’s honor is visible through the symbols that declare their rank, time in service and the medals and ribbons they wear, especially on their dress uniforms.  Addressing those of higher rank using their rank or their rank and their last name is an acknowledgement of that person’s honor.  Referring to officers as “sir” or “mam”, saluting them, standing at attention, and so forth, are all manifestations of the military’s honor system.  Every member also wears a patch or a medal that reveals the specific unit they serve with,

3. The ascribed honor of the outfit/unit must be maintained or increased

Once a member finishes training and is part of their unit, the honor of that unit is ascribed to them.  From that point onward, their attitude and behavior during their work hours and during their lives outside of work hours reflect on the honor of their unit.  Embracing this reality moves each member to a level of self-denial for the honor of the group that is the polar opposite of the culture they were born and raised in.

4. Achieved honor must never be self-ascribed

An individual can achieve varying levels and types of honor, with bravery on behalf of others topping the list.  But when honor is achieved, it must bestowed by others, never self-ascribed.  To bestow honor on yourself is shameful and can bring dishonor upon the unit from which your identity is drawn.  Although it’s uncomfortable for many recipients of special honor, it is acceptable and important for them to wear the symbol for the honor that has been bestowed on them.

5. Shame is also achieved and ascribed, and is both objective and subjective

A person has shame bestowed on them by either acting or not acting due to self-interest or self-preservation.  Either by drawing public attention to the person who has acted shamefully, public discipline, or lowering a person’s rank, shame is not just a subjective feeling, it’s an objective condition that the person has achieved.  That person’s individual shame also diminishes the honor of their unit at some level.






Photo by Kara Peak on