Power Distance And Other Such Things

What the hell is the Power Distance Index I hear you ask!  Well basically its a theory or tool that has helped me to make sense of the cultural world. It looks at the distance of power between people, or in other words, the hierarchy that exists in a community.  The central idea is that the distance of power determines how you should relate and how you should communicate with each other.  As an example, Japan has a high power distance which indicates you shouldn’t speak to someone of authoirty with familiarity.  You must recognise your position relative to them and speak with subordination and respect and you must not question their status or authority.


Personally I think this is invaluable information to have when dealing with other cultures.  Failure to recognise these very minute details of a different culture may lead to misunderstandings and huge embarassment to yourself and to others.  If however, you learn to recognise the importance of this dimension, it can guide you in your interactions allowing you to build successful relationships.


One of the reasons I am anxious about my integration into French society comes back to this Power Distance Index.  New Zealand has one of the lowest power distances in the world (22).  We’re all about giving people a fair go, irrespective of what your position is in society. By virtue of this, we’ll talk to anyone about anything really (at least I do!).  Old or young, middle or working class, brown, yellow, white, black – none of it should matter in the way we communicate with one another (although I might question this reality another time).  With respect to hierarchy, it’s not uncommon to hang out with your manager, perhaps you might play sports together, you might socialise and you may become lifelong friends.  The fact they are your superior doesn’t have to impede on a friendship from blooming. Likewise, I have built some great friendships with people who are much much older than me because we can be frank and open with eachother.


France on the other hand, has an above average Power Distance of 68.   What this means in practice, I have no idea. I’m guessing that it means there are a whole lot of unwritten rules about how you should/shouldn’t speak to certain people.  In fact, even your vocabulary should change depending on who you’re talking to.  If you’re talking to someone familiar, you refer to them as ‘tu’ but if you’re talking with a stranger or someone older, you should use ‘vous’, both of which mean ‘you’.  At this stage I have no idea when you stop using vous and start using tu and because there are so many other words I’m struggling to learn, one ‘you’ is enough for me! (Geez, I sound like Dr. Seuss!)


The French are also said to be a high context culture.  This refers to the general way in which they prefer to communicate or send messages.  As an example, if they are talking about a serious issue or personal feeling I’m led to believe that the French are much more subtle about getting their point across.  This has the effect of keeping face or maintaining the integrity of all involved.  Low context cultures, like New Zealanders, are much more direct about things.  I have found myself in deep trouble because of these differences, not just cross culturally but intra-cultrally too.  If I feel aggrieved, I have to try and fix it and I have often felt that the most efficient way of dealing with issues is to tackle them directly. To digress just a tad, I have come to realise that if other people dont deal well with this strategy, then it can have the adverse effect. So, I can see the benefit of high-context communication.


Having said all of this, being Maori and growing up surrounded by various Polynesian and Asian cultures – who traditionally have  higher power distances and are generally  high context communicators – has probably helped me become sensitive to these dynamics.  I remember going to a great-uncle’s funeral.  I didn’t know him or his family, so having arrived during the service had to find a seat beside my Nana.  As I made my way to her, I made sure to bow lower than the person speaking as a sign of respect.  My nana laughed at me, explaining that as we were in a NZ European environment it wasn’t necessary. It almost felt as if I’d made a faux pas in my own country!  Until that point in time I’d never thought about that custom and it never crossed my mind to walk in standing taller than the speaker…..you would never do that at the pa (maori village).  Like the French, Maori also has a formal and informal vocabulary.  You may say ‘Kia ora’ to greet anyone but to an elder you should say ‘Tena Koe’ as a show of respect.   So while I’ve grown up in an urban Kiwi environment, I do have experience and recognise the importance, symbolism and traditions of high context cultures.


Obviously these are all generalisations (which positivist scientists and sceptics would gladly poke holes through) and until I live in France, I wont truly know whether the terms are relevant. Without a doubt, I do hope I will be successful at integrating into French society. France will always be part of my life and I truly hope I can build relationships and networks there. But I must also be realistic about some of the challenges I will face as this will determine whether or not my experience is a positive one.


Ultimately, I do understand that working toward a balance (yin and yang if you like) is important for the sake of keeping peace and maintaining relationships. This is something I think a lot of people will recognise and work hard for – irrespective of culture, creed or ethnic background.  But I am not interested in holding up any pretenses nor subordinating myself to others for no good reason. In my opinion, everyone and I truly mean everyone, deserves to be treated with respect and spoken to with courtesy, no matter who they are or where they come from.  It may be naive but I treat people the way that I’d like to be treated, so I have to hope that people may forgive my cultural foibles in favour of recognising my humanity.


Chur 😉


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