Culture: why the propensity to show off.


Kalafi Moala

Sioeli Mafi (not his real name) was a promising youngster growing up in one of the villages in Tongatapu, and attending a good high school. He has topped his class in the last 3 years, and intends to go to University after high school. But he has a problem brewing in his young mind, as he encounters something he really dislikes. He is emotionally disturbed about it.

“I try to do well in school so that I can be better qualified for whatever I do later in life after I graduate,” he says. “But my mother is spoiling it for me.”

“Since I’ve done well, she goes around the neighborhood and boasts to everyone that ‘her son is intelligent’ and ‘he is going to be the top of the school’ when he graduates,” Sioeli confides in a friend. “It is really embarrassing for me but mother does not seem to understand.”

“I get teased at school among my friends, and when I complained to my mother, she says that they are jealous because I am the best!” Sioeli laments.

At 17, and one more year to finish high school, Sioeli is experiencing and coming to grips with a serious and odd complexity in Tongan culture: we have an innate propensity to show off! Yet one of the fundamental pillars of Tongan values is humility, a character attribute that seems to contradict showing off!

But there are those who do not sympathize with young Sioeli. “What’s wrong with the mother telling everyone about her successful son?” someone asked.

One mother says: “My daughter is a beautiful and sexy looking girl. I tell her, if you’ve got it, you can flaunt it!” She added, “Why does she has to be shy about her beauty, given to her by God?”

But this daughter reached an age when she was no longer “sexy looking”. In fact she had put on a few kilos and looked fat. She can no longer flaunt it, as the mother said.

How can there be such contradiction between a cultural value of humility and a tendency among people to do things for the sake of impressing others. In other words, show off!

We seem unable to be anything or do something significant without making sure “others know about it.” In fact we seem to do whatever we do so to be known and be praised for it.

Living to impress others or to do what is right?

The question is, who are we trying to impress? Do we live to please others? Or do we have important principles to live by? Do we really care about principles, or what is more important than anything is how well others perceive us?

And what if the perceptions are wrong? Do we then go on and pretend we are something that we are not, just so we can make a positive impression on others?

Do we do things to cater to others’ expectations and wishes or do we do things because they are right, and not care whether we are known for it or not.

Doing things to impress or please others is so common in Tongan cultural practice, and strongly endorsed by churches especially in soliciting donations. Take for example, the act of fund raising. People give so much money, even beyond their means, because their names are going to be called out publicly with how much they contribute.

Obviously, they do not want their names associated with a small contribution, especially if their neighbors give more money than they do. There is incredible untold pressure to give more because it is being announced publicly.

A friend of mine who is a preacher, does a lot with his group to help the poor and needy. This is commendable except when they photograph and video tape what they do for publicity. This becomes a humiliating exercise for those being helped, because they are constantly being publicized as “the poor and needy”, and the givers are “the heroes of the faith.”

It is not uncommon to watch TV or videos on social media display religious groups giving gifts to poor people, and then taking photos of those people receiving the gifts.

Tongan youth often question why we have to publicize generosity, like the giving of gifts or doing things to assist the poor and needy.

One commentator disgusted with the public display of giving and helping the poor, posted in social media: “When you go out to do something good, please leave your cameras at home. You are not helping the poor. You are humiliating them, and giving honor to yourselves!”

Why care who gets the credit?

It can become such a personal and cultural bondage, to be obsessed with doing things for the sake of impressing others. And especially if we are successful in anything, we want to make sure others know about it. In fact we want to make sure we are being credited for it.

Ignored are the teachings of Christ concerning doing things that are important privately… like prayer, fasting, and giving. We may be doing a lot of things religiously for publicity, in complete contradiction to the teachings of Christ.

The virtuous things we do are especially things we do in order to be known. Virtues such as generosity, hospitality, helping someone, doing good deeds, are without exception often done with the desire to be observed and be known for it.

In an age where people control their own ability to communicate, we live in danger of self-suffocation from drawing attention to ourselves. Social media and our ability to go “live-stream” give us a platform to publicize ourselves. And even though communication is good when we have something worthy to communicate, the ‘selfie’ has become not only the medium but also the message.

We have taken a cultural trait to live to impress others to an extreme where our 24/7 preoccupation with ourselves – our ideas, our wishes, our abilities, our accomplishments, are means to bring attention to the “kingdom of self!”

It was former US President Ronald Reagan who said that a lot of good would be done in the world if we do not care who gets the credit.

Even those who should know better find it difficult not to take credit for things they had nothing to do with. Take Covid 19 for example. Tonga is one of six nations in the Pacific that are still Covid-free.

Our political leaders for example do what comes natural to them, not only because that’s what politicians do, but they are naturally acting on their own Tongan cultural trait.

They say that Tonga is Covid-free because they have fasted and prayed. If that is right, why publicize it? It is not the Christian way to boast and claim blessings for something you do! It is like claiming, “the country is blessed because of me and what I’ve done!” Where is the grace of God in all this then?

Maybe that’s why we find it extremely difficult to be transparent about things that could reflect negatively on us. In Tongan culture, it is quite unusual for someone to disclose weakness, faults, mistakes, and worse, moral violations.

Just as the politicians claim credit for Tonga’s Covid-free status, what about Tonga’s drug infestation, the high rate of violence against women and children, or the stealing epidemic so common in every neighborhood? Who is responsible for that?

Why do we claim credit for blessings, and then look away pretentiously when presented with major failures happening in our society?

People talk and boast about their successes and their achievements. Very few would admit they’ve made mistakes. And fewer still would expose their own faults in humility and admit that without the grace of God, they would not have made it.

Those who live for themselves will do everything to impress others about themselves. Their chief aim in life is to please others… and themselves.

Those who dare to live wholly for their creator God, will live to please Him. Pleasing people, even themselves, is not an issue for them, for their lives are fully lived to please God, even at the expense of displeasing people.