Three (not so) Little Monkeys

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Photo by George Becker on

I read a lot. Sometimes my brain makes connections between what I am reading and what I teach. This is what I have for you today. It is not a theory of everything, it is not even a complete position. Think of it more as a point of departure.

What follows is my brain droppings after looking into the work of psychologists Dov Cohen and Angela Leung. My take on what they were communicating is that your culture has a powerful impact on how you treat other people and it governs your attitudes and action, just as theirs does them. When the cultures have different means to the same ends, ah…there we find the challenges to both understanding one another and keeping things civil.

In self-defense circles, we speak of the inner monkey, that part of the brain that is overly concerned with how we are viewed by others. Bless his heart, the monkey tries so hard, but he just isn’t very bright. Our culture will have a very specific monkey planted in our brain. Knowing what type we have is as good a place to start as any.


The Honor Monkey is concerned mostly with reputation. To the honor monkey, their reputation is based on honorable dealings. If someone does a favor for you or shows a kindness, you are bound by honor to repay them. In so doing, you are viewed in the proper way by the other monkeys, and your reputation is enhanced. Likewise, if you are insulted, you are bound by that same honor to even the score. If you do not follow through on this, others within your culture will view you as weakened and will shame you.

The honor monkey has a finely honed sense of propriety. They can be very kind, and may even be viewed as caring and generous people. But if there is a wrong, real or otherwise, they will turn in a heartbeat and settle things.

To the honor monkey, this all makes perfect sense. People will be slow to cross you if they know that there will be a great cost, retribution will be swift and severe, and that you are to be feared. At the same time, when you repay all debts fairly, then you show that there is a greater reason to stay in your good graces. This is powerful to the honor monkey.


The Dignity Monkey is focused on the value of everyone. The dignity monkey thinks that everyone has value and should be understood in this light. The dignity monkey is less swayed by the words of others and sticks to an inner conviction. The dignity monkey is prone to guilt, and as such will follow the law even when he/she disagrees with it.

One drawback to the dignity monkey is that it is easy for someone who is not a dignity monkey to manipulate them through guilt. The dignity monkey also relies heavily on the other monkeys following the rules of society. When they do not follow the rules of the dignity monkey, the result is confusion for the one who does.


The Face Monkey is probably the most difficult for most westerners to understand unless they spend a long time in the eastern martial arts. Kind of like the Honor Monkey, the face monkey is motivated largely by their own reputation, and shame is a factor. Unlike honor monkey, face monkey is about cooperation. For the face monkey, there is great shame in causing someone else to lose face. The face monkey looks to let each monkey keep a sense of self-worth. A person at any societal level in a face monkey culture can do well by functioning well in their assigned role.


The challenge faced by everyone is in how to handle conflict, not only within our own culture but in cross-cultural terms as well. If you end up in a confrontation with a gangster, your response will need to be very different than if you end up at odds with a liberal arts major. I’m sure you already knew that, but the implications go much further.

Taking some time to understand that our own way is not the only way goes a long way in aiding both our understanding of other people and our personal safety. This is just a starting point, but I hope I gave you something to think about.

Be nice to each other.