Power Distance
by Jim Curtiss


According to Professor Emeritus Geert Hofstede of the Maastricht University in Holland, there exist five key intercultural dimensions that can predict how a person from a particular country will behave in any given setting. These factors are the Power Distance Index, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Long-Term Orientation.

Of the five mentioned factors, differences between American and Central European societies’ Power Distances have recently been exemplified in my circle of acquaintances, and I’d like to share some of the anecdotes which illustrate those differences.

But first let’s examine the term power distance itself, which refers to how much a culture does or does not accept and value hierarchical relationships and respect for authority. Thus, if those in authority in your country openly demonstrate their rank, through either dress or behavior, or if class divisions within your society are accepted and reinforced, your country likely has a high power distance score. That is, the gap between ordinary folk and those of a higher social status is rarely bridged, and co-mingling between the classes is virtually unheard of.

Countries with high power distance scores (on a scale of 1-100) include France (68), China (80), Egypt, Iraq, and Kuwait (all with a score of 80), as well as Russia (93) and its former satellite states.

At the other end of the power distance spectrum, officials in countries with a low power distance score might not flout their power or influence, and in general terms, the society tends towards egalitarianism. That is, people from all societal levels are theoretically seen more as just plain human beings, and how they earn their living is of secondary import. In these countries, you might even see political leaders biking or walking to work.

Countries with lower power distance scores include Sweden (31), Australia (36), and Canada (39).

In the United States, for example, the power distance index score is 40, while in the Czech Republic it is 57. The higher the score you see, the higher the distance between normal folk and the upper classes, and in fact, the more that division is respected by the average citizen. Thus, nearly 20 points is a considerable difference and perhaps explains a few variations between my own behavior and that of my Czech wife.

For example, a few years ago Jarmila and I were at a conference in Prague called Forum 2000, which was founded by the late, former Czech President Václav Havel, Japanese philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel. During the final portion of the conference there was a round table discussion of distinguished guests, including Mr. Havel and ex-U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright.

As these guests concluded their discussion and arose to leave, I realized there was an opportunity to go up and meet them or take their photo, and I tried to convince Jarmila to accompany me, but she was uninterested - uncomfortable, even. So I shouldered my way past the media and right up to Madame Secretary. I shook her hand and got an autograph as well - no problem. Afterwards, when I asked Jarmila why she didn’t want to come with me, she said – somewhat dismissively – that she just didn’t feel like it. My hunch now is that it was a power distance thing, that is, she felt that it wasn't really proper to approach such people.

Another illustration of power distance was brought home to me this last week when a German family that we know returned from the United States after having lived there for a year. Keeping in mind that egalitarianism, that is, equality between people, is a mainstay of lower power distance societies, this German couple had so gotten used to the approachability of people in the United States that returning to the higher power distance society of Eastern Germany was a bit of a shock.

“The people here in Halle are so nasty,” said the woman. “Ok, sometimes the friendliness in the U.S. can be cosmetic. But here in Halle, I’ve actually been scolded by cashiers for not packing my groceries fast enough. And I had my four kids with me!”

For those of you who think this might have nothing to do with power distance, please remember that in the former Eastern, that is, Socialist Germany, the store clerks were actually powerful people and could act nasty if they wanted to, and you couldn’t do a thing about it because they were the ones with the goods that you needed.

But the recently-returned German woman actually stood up to this nasty clerk, saying, “Apparently you don’t want or need my business here.” Unaccustomed to the customer being right, the clerk got simply furious as the mother of four collected her children and left the cashier to clean up the mess she had created.

To switch gears, a somewhat more pleasant effect of the power distance phenomenon is continuously manifested here in Halle at our favorite pub, Object 5. Actually, Object 5 is more of a cozy concert hall than a pub, and so far we’ve seen approximately 10 concerts there. And of those 10 concerts, on only three occasions were the bands readily approachable, and all three of them were American, or at least American-influenced bands. Indeed, we were able to get chatty and chummy with the bands each time.

There were the Tiptons, a female group of saxophonists who embodied an entirely unique style and sound. After the concert they came out into the crowd and we were able to speak to them for a long while and we walked away feeling very fine to have done so.

And then two nights ago the Japanese American jazz trio of Makoto Ozone came to town. Jarmila, myself and another Czech girl went to the concert and between sets the drummer happened to walk behind me. He was wearing a hipster hat over his shaved head and as he passed by, I said, “Hey man, you guys are really cookin’!”

He stopped and looked at me, the ice in his glass tinkling, “You sound American,” he said.

“Uh…I am,” I replied.

I’m not kidding, this guy threw his arms around me for a big hug and said, “Man, I miss home!”

This hug started a conversation that ran the whole of the band’s break, and the pianist even joined in as well.

To return to the power distance thing, though my wife Jarmila is now used to me being involved in such situations, our other Czech companion said, “I think it’s sometimes useful to have an American boy around. Because yes, I enjoyed the conversation, but I would never have started one in the first place.”

Indeed, I’d also like to think that a low power distance score – not my own stupidity – explains why, when the pianist after whom the jazz trio was named joined in our conversation, I said, “My name's Jim - what’s yours?”

- end