I was reading about Power-Distance Indexes today in and was so interested in the topic that I did a bit of side research on my own to see how it affected cultures like the Philippines. Power-Distance is one of the five dimensions of culture first put forth by Dutch writer Geert Hofstede, and is a fascinating answer to that age-old question, “Why are Americans so bloody uncivilized?” (among others).
But first, some definitions. Power-Distance is the extent to which we consider our superiors “superior.” Any organization of a meaningful size will obviously have hierarchies, but depending on your cultural background, it’s possible that you may still treat someone four or five rungs above you as an equal. The key thing here is “culture,” because each culture will have a slightly greater or lesser emphasis on power-distance, and one of Hofstede’s great contributions was to index each country to see how one ranked against another. Interestingly (and not surprisingly) the Philippines is the 4th highest in the global Power-Distance index list. We treat our superiors like superiors, it turns out. We’re trained from birth, after all, not to speak up in the presence of authority. Instead we use hints or exceedingly subtle language (the technical term is “mitigated speech“) in an effort to get our point across without offending our bosses, or clients, or anyone else that we are socially obligated to show respect to.
The United States, meanwhile, (and also not surprisingly) is on the opposite end of the list, #52 out of 67 countries studied. This is, I believe, the reason why we think they’re so uncivilized, because whenever a high PDI person is in a conversation with a low PDI person, the former can barely get a word in. We’re a product of a cultural standard that prevents us from being pricks.
A lot of the more forward-thinking Filipino organizations (and I know that Exist is one of them because I remember having this conversation with them some weeks ago) have started really encouraging their people to slough off these old traditions and start communicating more openly. But I think the question of why we are like this to begin with needs to be looked at as well. For example, you would think that Japan, famous for its massive gestures of respect and tradition, would be higher up on the index than we were, but it’s not even in the top 20. In fact, it’s only a few numbers higher than the US, at #46. So what’s the major difference between Japan and the Philippines, apart from industrialization? The strong presence of a Judeo-Christian religion is probably a big factor. Of the other countries that share the top 5 positions with the Philippines, three (Guatemala, Panama and Mexico) have populations that are about 75-85% Roman Catholic. The number one highest PDI, Malaysia, meanwhile is 60% Muslim. (Note that the correlation with religion is disputed, and admittedly difficult to quantify. To a non-believer though, it makes a lot of sense.)
It also bears mentioning that having a high PDI is not always bad either. There’s a certain subtlety and elegance to the way we interact with our superiors and subordinates that is completely lost on foreigners, and I do not think it’s necessary to lose that altogether. Not everything needs to be said directly, and part of the reason I feel that Americans sound brutish is because they have to spell everything out when they talk. They’re “speaker-oriented,” i.e., they believe that it is the responsibility of the speaker to get his message across. So they tend to overcommunicate. Sometimes, ad nauseum. Meanwhile, Filipinos are “receiver-oriented,” i.e., we believe that it is the responsibility of the listener to infer the message. So we tend to misinterpret. Neither of the two tendencies are particularly healthy when taken to extremes, so the trick really is to look for the appropriate balance for a given situation.
Tons more information on PDI and the other four cultural dimensions (Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance and Long-Term Orientation) at Hofstede’s website here. There’s also a very brief Culture in the Workplace questionnaire here that’s pretty interesting. I scored “32,” i.e., “Your score indicates that you have a moderate Tolerance for Ambiguity and might be willing to give up job security for more opportunity.” Yeah, that sounds about right.