Deference Customs

The nature of the husband-wife relationship is not only reflected in the number and kinds of activities in which married partners engage together or separately. The tone of the marital bond is also influenced by cultural values regarding the relative status of spouses. Ideas about relative husband-wife status are, in turn, mirrored in what are known as deference customs. These are culturally agreed upon behaviors that a person of lower status directs toward a person of higher status in acknowledgement of this difference between them. Deference behavior includes such actions as bowing, kneeling, standing, speaking in a low voice, remaining silent, and using a special language in the presence of the dominant individual. Walking behind the dominant person, reserving a seat of honor for the dominant person, and saving the dominant individual the choicest foods are also examples of deference customs found in some societies (Stephens, 1963). One person may also show deference to another by asking permission to engage in certain behaviors. Status differences reflect inequality between people with respect to power, privilege, and the like. A number of cultures expect wives to show deference in the presence of their husbands. In contrast, it is rare for husbands to show deference to their wives. Even when men display such behaviors, their actions do not signify submissiveness to their wives but rather something closer to politeness. Thus, in some cultures, a wife is viewed as subservient to her husband and required to demonstrate this outwardly multiple times a day.

A traditional Hindu wife is prohibited from speaking her husband's name. Rather, when she talks to him, she is required to call him "my lord." A wife who wants to refer to her spouse to other people calls him "the master of the house" (Mace & Mace, 1959). In Korea, women of the upper classes remain in seclusion at home and must ask their husbands for permission even to look out at the street (Griffis, 1882). Among the Ganda of Uganda, a wife washes her husband's feet every night (Stephens, 1963). A rural Ukranian wife will walk behind her husband in public and will enter the house after him (Wilber, 1964). In traditional Japanese families, the husband is the first to be served at meals and first to take a bath (Stephens, 1963). Among the Chuckchee of Siberia, the husband gets the choicest food. His wife eats what is left behind (Bogoras, 1909).

A wife's subordination to her spouse can also be communicated by behavior on the part of the husband. It is customary for a religious Hindu to refer to his wife using such labels as "my servant" or "my dog" instead of calling her by her name (Mace & Mace, 1959). Traditional Japanese husbands are proscribed from speaking gratefully or respectfully about their spouses. Instead, they use such terms as "my old hag," the idea being to demean the women in the presence of other people. Japanese men also use the impolite terms for "you" when talking to their wives, while women are required to use the polite form of the pronoun when speaking to their spouse. A man who uses the polite form of "you" is assumed to be henpecked by those who hear him (Mace & Mace, 1959).

Outwardly deferent behavior on the part of a wife more accurately reflects a woman's informal status more in some societies than in others, as in many cultures women who are required to indicate their subordination to their husbands by various gestures nevertheless have some, sometimes considerable, power. Even where customs reflect overall real subordination, wives can, in fact, have some amount of power. While a Javanese woman shows formal deference to her husband, she retains most of the control and makes most of the decisions with regard to household matters (Geertz, 1961). The Saharan Tuareg husband has all of the power outside of his household. However, wives own their own property and have no responsibility for household expenses, with the result that they can amass considerable wealth in comparison with their husbands, whose resources are likely to remain stable or even to diminish over the course of the marriage (Lhote, 1944). While a Burmese girl understands even as a child that she must treat men with supreme respect and always defer to a man's judgment, in fact, husbands ask for and take the advice of their wives in both public and private matters (Scott, 1910).

There are also cases where deferent behavior on the part of a wife reflects a real lack of power. A Gandan wife not only displays deference but is genuinely subordinate to her husband. She is expected to plan household activities around his schedule, make meals when convenient for him, visit only with his permission, and stay away from home only as long as he permits. If she does not obey her husband, she can expect a beating (Stephens, 1963).

Behavior indicating deference of wives toward their spouses, then, is sometimes a reflection of genuine differences in power, privilege, respect, freedom, and so on between a woman and her husband. Sometimes, deference behavior on the part of a wife masks a level of status that is higher than these gestures indicate. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to conclude that a marriage characterized by expectations of frequent deference behavior on the part of a wife will be different from marriages in which such gestures are not expected and are not witnessed.

In some cultures, husbands do display behavior toward their wives that has a superficial similarity to deference behavior. Among the Brno of Czechoslovakia, a wife is seated before her husband is at meals and also begins eating first (Stephens, 1963). In Madrid, aristocratic wives walk to the right of their husbands, which is considered to be the honored position. A husband also holds his wife's chair while she is being seated and stands when she enters room. These gestures, which are reminiscent of the code of chivalry, seem to be indications, not of a man's subordination, but of good manners (Stephens, 1963).

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