Power Distance

Geert Hofstede, the researcher on “human values,” pops up in my book Beyond Eurasian and Hapa: Bridging a Chinese-Western Identity. Hofstede looks at six “dimensions,” with “Power Distance” one that concerns views on authority: for example, are you skeptical of authority? Do you generally tend to trust authority?

I remember a friend in the Boston area, a genial self-described “ultimate Yankee,” who said in the course of a light conversation “if the police stop you, well, you are probably doing something wrong.”

He is a financially secure white male, a lovable family man with a secure job. I don’t recall exactly the prompt. Despite this comment having nothing to do with the Trayvon Martin case I remember it vividly because that was headline news at the time.

My rational brain told me that statistically it is true, actually he is absolutely right, you probably have done something wrong. But so much hinges on that word, probably.

The thing is we weren’t in any old suburb of the Northeast U.S.A.; we were in Charlestown, the site of one of the first real fights of the American Revolutionary War, the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Eight or nine months prior to the outbreak of hostilities, in September of 1774, Massachusetts Governor Gage enacted the Suffolk Resolutions, adding to the list of other unpopular legislation like the Stamp Act and the Intolerable Acts, for instance. The climate at the time was one of mistrust. The mantra of the day was: “No Taxation Without Representation,” and the Suffolk Resolutions enabled Governor Gage to seize all privately-held gunpowder, in a cheesecloth-veiled attempt to disarm the townfolk[i]. (and non-Americans wonder where the ‘gun-mad’ U.S. electorate gets its prerogatives from—there is plenty of “there” there, no?)

One of the early grievances published in the Boston Gazette, Sept 19th 1774, reads: "the ferment now excited in the minds of the people, is occasioned by some late transactions, ...by withholding the powder lodged in the magazine of the town of Boston, from the legal proprietors...[ii]" Historians will heartily debate proximate causes of the Revolution. You might say it was tax or it was tea. But don’t try to take guns away from an American. The “powder alarm” went off. Virtually all Americans were subject to arbitrary search and seizure, under constant suspicion of illegally transporting or storing illegal arms. In response, the Americans resisted.

So why was it that my friend in Charlestown, two hundred plus years later, wouldn’t dare question a Law Enforcement Officer, yet when his great-great-great-great Uncle, literally, assumed every man in uniform was trouble? If values are constant—what gives?

My hypothesis is that the dimension of Power Distance is actually rather circumstantial (and not as culturally ingrained as we may be biased to think).

Hofstede, it seems, views China through a lens of what he perceives to be Confucian culture. When I worked in real estate development in China, there was a term local Chinese used to describe the interior decoration that Westerners thought of as Chinese: “gui lao zhong shi.” Invariably it meant a lot of bamboo, and a light trough here or there, some reflective lacquer finishes, and a showpiece of old Chinese furniture, maybe a desk. Hofstede may not be able to help himself but think of China as somehow static, in the tradition of Max Weber. And a lot of the static comes from two sources, first the Western lens of Confucianism, and second, the inability to disaggregate affinities toward Confucianism present in modern Greater China from vast social and economic changes that themselves are uprooting a lot of traditional behaviors. Let us not forget that a generation before Mao’s reforms toward more gender inclusiveness, China was just emerging from feudalism. It is not surprising that Western feminist social scientists who look at China directly or maybe even not at all, have many advocates of Chairman Mao Zedong, whose crowning legacy in their eyes was his advocacy for women’s rights in China. This is known in Chinese as Funuu Jiefang, or Female Liberation.

It is out of scope to go deeper into the root causes of this, much less the political context for this. But, in short there is a paradox. On one hand, policies intertwined with gender equality have paid dividends in girls’ access to early education, and clearly in mobilizing women into the workforce, and upwards too, to the extent that today women fill 34% of Chinese senior management positions, contrasted with 20% as the global benchmark[iii]. Only 15% of senior management in the U.S. are women. Judging by the assertiveness of Chinese businesswomen today, they may view themselves relative to men in a way that leaps over male-to-female footing in Japan or Korea, for example. Values can change, albeit with a lot of inertia; maybe Marxist-Socialist imprints were momentum?  On the other hand, China faces a problem of “missing girls,” exacerbated by the One-Child Policy, and certainly influenced by deeply nested traditional values, such as Zhong Nan Qing Nü, i.e. to emphasize boys over girls.

Hofstede misses some subtlety in the Chinese context of Power Distance. As in the Chinese written language, each bu shou, or component of each and every character has a neat etymology, a neat family tree within which each component happily belongs to. Every unit belongs in its place in the familiar, static recounting of Chinese civilization. Soldiers deal with soldiers, Princes deal with Princes, and all the four harmonious social classes, all get along, despite being situated in a rigid hierarchy with teachers on the top deck (in theory, at least. Though its hard to imagine any ruling class today not the asset-owning class).

While the American “frat boy” all of twenty years of age feels no compunction going straight to the most senior person at some formal event and conversing with him as if they are old friends, it may not be as much in the Chinese psyche to do so because of a higher acculturated Power Distance. I guess things are more organizationally stacked in China, unlike the way they may be in the West with a more laissez-faire attitude, and the notion that good ideas can come from anywhere. While Western associates, despite a marked age gap might call each other by their first names, in China everyone is a “Mr. So-and So,” or “Surname Such-and-Such + Honorific.” The honorific could be something like “uncle,” or “venerable,” or “big.” One of my favorites, used in Hong Kong, is to call someone “Big-Brother-Kid,” a term that you might call a young salesperson or attendant or busboy, for example. Chinese are uncomfortable with 50-50 shareholdings. It's better if someone is big and someone is small.

The lexicon, the categories all have their place. But just like the “Big-Brother-Kid” example, there is a subtlety to things often absent in Western Power Distance. “Big-Brother-Kid” is giving someone a polite address, that acknowledges them with a fleeting sort of promotion. It also is a “warm hint,” as is the literal translation for what in English is called a “gentle reminder,” that they are indeed junior to you, if not in age then by the context of you being the paying customer and them being the service provider. When you go to a formal western banquet there is invariably some type of rectangular table. Every Western traditional home has a rectangular table in its formal dining room, whether it is the Cotswolds in England or The Hamptons, New York. Invariably, the host(s) will sit on the narrow ends, with all the guests running the gauntlet, down a neat row, all the way to the other side. The Chinese prefer a round table, and it is not entirely clear who sits where. The seats facing the door, with the back to the wall are considered the “big seats.” But every ballroom or dining room is different, and it takes a little guesswork sometimes to determine precisely where these “big seats” are. Often there are elaborate tugs-of-war at banquets to see who can give-up their “big seats” to someone similarly senior, in a nuanced game of “I get props for being deferential, but you succumbed to my demand that I defer, so really, I win.”

The point to make is that just because you can’t see it, or because it is hard to capture in a survey with only five choices, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Chinese challenges to narrow what some perceive as gaping power distance, that is. Especially in topsy-turvy, cash-money-rules Mainland China, the drive to satisfy individual goals is too great. The Cantonese phrase that comes to mind when I tempt myself to sum up the geist of Chinese economic activity today is: “Guts are priceless, life is cheap (膽正命平)”

Hofstede finds the West to have mostly low Power Distance. The idea is that a Westerner feels empowered within his culture to challenge authority, to call out the boss for an inappropriate slur, for a punk kid to be tight-lipped with a police officer who has questioned his alcohol consumption. But it seems Hofstede’s findings for this dimension prove to be a little too vanilla, a little too slow to catch the impact that changes in economic life are having in real time upon Power Distance (and this dimension in particular). I suspect that because his findings are trailing indicators, he will always have difficulty in keeping up with an area like Power Distance, with fast-changing global circumstances, economic and otherwise. I don’ t think a hot shot young Chinese hedge fund trader today would, for instance, have any compunction going directly to the most senior person in the room.

Yes, you can today go up on facebook or twitter and rail against a brand name consumer goods company for failing you as the customer some way, and crowdsource shame upon them. You can point out that a performer sucks on a TV show you watch, and that comment could go viral, and it could build into real pressure for one of the suits, in a way that traditional Nielsen type, non-realtime ratings had no chance of doing. But there is more to it than that. Young people in the West are blasé about their privacy, so blasé about insisting on free social networks that they are collectively introducing some other problems. What happens when you let lapse some of the healthy skepticism of what you hear and what you read? All the stuff we do on the web (and what activity today isn’t mediated by some type of web-connected mobile device?) has no expiration date; it can be crawled; it can be mined for keywords or phrases; faces can be recognized; elaborate webs of “graphs” of relationships between people and things and ideas can be established.

Hopefully this day never dawns on the West, but Westerners will know they live in a high Power Distance World if there emerges a class distinction between those with the data and those without; and invoking Machiavelli, if those on the wrong side of that distinction abstain from action out of fear, rather than acting out of love. The meta point is that the West’s values of low Power Distance, in a more data-driven world, are actually leading to greater structural power distances in Western society.

The concept of Power Distance is tarnished because it cannot account for changing circumstances. People who might be biased toward lower power distance might encounter a high power distance world around them, or imposed upon them, and they adapt, signaling that Power Distance is junior to other dimensions. If a new breakthrough in theoretical physics occurs it is likely to affect how a marine biologist thinks of the hydrodynamic limits of cetaceans; but that flow is unlikely to go in reverse. For example, a Scandinavian in Abu Dhabi will conform to greater deference to authority. In other words, Power Distance will melt away, while other, deeper dimensions will ensure he is still a Fin or a Swede. 

On the other hand, permanent deference to authority, written into core values just isn’t real. The “Red-Shirts” in Thailand[iv], have strongholds in the northern provinces, which are poorer, agricultural, and evidently detached from traditional centers of power in Bangkok. Given the combo of high Power Distance in Thailand and strong recent economic performance, including 7.8% GDP growth in 2010, the presumption from Bangkok was that people from “the provinces” continue to have reasons to be placid. But when the majority realized that if they banded together at the polls they could initiate a huge power shift, then all bets were off. What is sorely lacking from this particular dimension of Hofstede’s is the ability to isolate values by class. And, as the Thailand crisis of 2013-2014 shows, because Thais have higher Power Distance correlated with their values, doesn’t mean that it causes their values.  

Any armchair attempt to say China has high Power Distance, and that is that, is sketchy at best. The ascendancy of women in business in political life, the preponderance of a raw form of entrepreneurship in China which exists side-by-side a planning-focused, government-driven style of business, the perennial jockeying of the local versus the central all paint a much more complicated picture. With so many tumultuous social and economic and other forces at play, how do you keep the faith in hierarchy and authority, and resist chronic cynicism, while looking out for yourself and your immediate loved ones? Developments in the world have shaken up so many old assumptions in respect to Power Distance; in order to host a meaningful discussion, as is said in Cantonese, I guess you need to “catch it live(執生).” Regarding Chinese and Western, this dimension of Power Distance sees more similarities than differences. The rift appears to be smaller than expected.

[i] Halbrook, Stephen P. "Encroachments of The Crown on The Liberty of The Subject: PRe-Revolutionary Origins of The Second Amendment." Constitution.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2014. <http://www.constitution.org/2ll/2ndschol/39rev-.pdf>.

[ii] Boston Gazette, Sept. 19, 1774, at 1, col. 2.

[iii] "Proportion of Women in Senior Management Falls to 2004 Levels." Grant Thornton, 2011. Web. 22 Jan. 2014. <http://www.internationalbusinessreport.com/Press-room/2011/women_in-senior_management.asp>.

[iv] Thailand scored a 64 in Hofstede's PDI