Power Distance

or What you call apathy, I call respect

In the mid-1970s, many Vietnamese children were entering US schools. To help teachers to be culturally sensitive to the Vietnamese children, in 1976 the US Department of Education provided the following advice to teachers:

“Student participation was discouraged in Vietnamese schools by liberal doses of corporal punishment (= physical punishment), and students were conditioned to sit rigidly and to speak only when spoken to. This background … makes speaking freely in class hard for a Vietnamese. Therefore, don’t mistake shyness for apathy.” 

Some years later, a participant at a doctoral seminar in Sweden (taught by Geert Hofstede) provided a different perspective on this statement. The participant described how this same situation might be seen from the Vietnamese perspective, if American children were attending school in Vietnam: 

“Students’ proper respect for teachers was discouraged by a loose order and students were conditioned to behave disorderly and to chat all the time. This background makes proper and respectful behaviour in class hard for an American student. Therefore, don’t mistake rudeness for lack of reverence.” 

As we saw last weekrespect for authority and everyone is equal are opposite ends of the cultural dimension called Power Distance.

Power Distance

How a society handles inequalities among people.

High power distance <—————> Low power distance

High power distance = strong hierarchy and control

Important values: respect for authority, chain of command, it is not OK to question authority, express opinions and ideas only when requested to

Low power distance = everyone is equal; high degree of individual autonomy

Important values: equality, it is OK to question authority, free exchange of opinions and ideas


In the story above, we see how people from different ends of the Power Distance spectrum can have very different perspectives on the same behaviour.

Here’s what to do so you can avoid conflict with people with a different Power Distance perspective:

1. Understand what your own Power Distance is:

Are you more comfortable in a business environment where anyone can directly email the CEO or president and employees have autonomy? Or are you most comfortable in a business environment with a strong hierarchy and respect for authority?

2. Understand that the other person’s behaviour is cultural, not personal.

3. If you find it very difficult to adjust to the other person’s Power Distance culture, explain your own perspective. For example (if you are from a high Power Distance culture):

“If I seem very formal or not proactive, it is because I am used to a strong hierarchy and respect for authority.”

This will hopefully open a discussion with the other person so that you can better understand each other and find a way of working or doing business together.

Have you ever had a conflict that was caused by differences in Power Distance culture? What happened? How did you handle it? Tell us on the BECC Academy LinkedIn page.

The story about Vietnamese schoolchildren and American schoolchildren is from the book Cultures and Organizations by Geert Hofstede, Geert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov. The name of the participant at the graduate seminar who provided the alternative perspective is Åke Phillips.

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