Power distance in the cultural clusters model

I blogged yesterday about David Livermore’s ten cultural clusters and the dimensions used for the “cluster analysis”.

Mrs. Arbel raised an eyebrow about the concept of “power distance”(PD). In his model, a culture with low PD is one with little hierarchy, where people at all levels are involved in decision making, and where there is little social distance.

That Latin American and Arab cultures have very high power distance comes as little surprise. That Nordic culture with its aggressive egalitarianism — “Jante law” (basically: don’t think you’re better than us and don’t make yourself out to be) — would qualify at the other extreme comes as little surprise either.

But Anglo culture? Sure, the USA, Canada, and Australia have a strong egalitarian streak in different ways — but old-school Britain was notoriously class-conscious, and to some degree still is. (In fact, I have argued that in recent years we’re seeing the emergence of a caste system in the USA itself, and that Trumpian populism is to some degree a reaction against a Brahmandarin [sic] elite perceived to be as overbearing as it is incompetent.)

Or how does Germany fit into low power distance? In old-school Germany, titles were almost sacred — to this day, I get addressed as “Herr Doktor” when I travel there on business, except by people with whom I am on a first-name basis, or as they say there “wir dutzen uns” (i.e., we use the informal second person form “du” to address each other rather than the formal “Sie” – like “se tutoyer” In French.) And let’s not even get into high military rank or the German word “Kadavergehorsam” (Freely: blind obedience to orders) — even as this is something of a caricature, as any serious student of military history knows.

Tellingly, however, the respect accorded credentials and rank goes together with a distaste for ostentation on the part of the credentialed and ranking. Salary gaps will be comparatively small, and even very senior officials will live comparatively modest lifestyles. And merely being born in the right family does not get you very far, unlike in Latin America, say. (Historically, there was of course the hereditary nobility, whose privileges were formally abolished under the Weimar Republic. But even they were expected to pull their weight, e.g., in the military.)

And what about Latin-European society, which is ranked as having “moderate power distance”? Livermore classifies both France and Israel as Latin-European, but while credentials do grant you deference in France, Israelis will address almost anyone by their first names by default — pupils will address school teachers thus, and even senior professors will be addressed as “Chaim” or even a nickname, rather than “Dr. Yankel” or “Prof. Yankel”. Ordinary citizens will think nothing of accosting even government ministers and speaking their minds to them. In fact, it is hard to think of a society with less power distance than Israel! — and it is an outlier in other ways as well, in particular being much less risk-averse than the rest of the Latin-European cluster. (Can you imagine Portugal or Belgium as “Startup Nation”? Yeah, right.)

In a sense, German society’s low power distance expresses itself in a way that’s orthogonal to how that goes in some parts of the USA. Americans (outside the Scandinavian-influenced parts of the Midwest) are fairly tolerant of garish and ostentatious lifestyles than Germans or especially Scandinavians, but generally not of standoffish behavior — I have heard more than one European express irritation at “phoney informality” on the part of Americans. As Israel grows more prosperous, I see it evolve more in the US than in the European direction of low power distance.

As ever with human relations, one can reduce a complex reality to a model that is simple, elegant, and has significant predictive power — but one needs to be aware of its limitations. A model is not a theory – “Ceci n’est pas une réalité”


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