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Cultural Differences - Respect and Status

Photo by on Unsplash‘What do you think are the hardest cultural differences to adapt to?’  It’s a question I’m often asked by coachees and trainees living and working in other cultures.  And the answer is… ‘It depends.’  

It depends on your personal values, those of your family, and the dominant values of your new host culture.  It depends on your personality, your cultural intelligence, your resilience, your previous experiences. 

But there are some patterns that re-occur. 

Adapting to changes in beliefs about power can be difficult.  Who has power and why they get it, impacts on who has status and respect.  One of the cultural values often discussed and measured is Power Distance – the way in which power is distributed in a group and the extent to which less powerful members of the group accept and expect that power to be distributed unequally.   Showing deference and respect is important in High Power Distance (HPD) or hierarchical cultures but not so critical in a Low Power Distance (LPD) or egalitarian culture. 

So, when and how does this cultural variation become challenging? 

If someone is from a high-power distance (HPD) culture and moves to a lower-power distance culture (LPD) there are several adaptations they need to make. In many cultures, they may need to address people by first names, - ways of showing respect such as regularly using titles, may not be as important in communications.  The rituals of greetings – formal introductions, bows or handshakes, business card exchanges – may appear to be absent or if they are present they are less structured and may appear almost disrespectful in their informality.

These aspects are probably less difficult to adapt to than the change in status of a ‘boss’.  In LPD cultures the manager is a part of the team, and usually welcomes questions and challenges in open discussions within the team.  In contrast in HPD cultures such challenges may be viewed as threatening and very inappropriate. 

If you are from a HPD culture - but you yourself were not given a high level of status – your challenges will be different in a LPD culture than if your personal status was higher.  

Who gets high status?  Different cultures and groups within cultures will differ but in HPD cultures people in positions of authority will usually have status, (politicians, doctors, teachers etc) often older people have more status than younger, men may have more status than women, being from a certain family or class or caste may give you more status than others, people with whiter skin colour may have more status, those who have gained a higher education etc. 

There may be many local variations in this granting of power but what is undoubted is that local people know who is important and worthy of respect and will act appropriately.  In some cultures, language changes depending on who is speaking and who they are speaking to.  In this way, the language used constantly reminds people of their position in society.

In moving to an egalitarian, LPD culture people may struggle with trying to work out how they should treat others.  Those of lower status who have not previously had opportunities to speak up and speak out, may respond positively to the opportunity or they may find the situation challenging as they struggle to overcome the conditioning of a lifetime to be respectful and silent.  Asking questions and raising genuine issues may be difficult for them.  It helps to understand the dynamics of the cultural value differences and to stress that it is not only ‘safe’ to speak out –in an LPD culture it is also expected and desirable.  If this is you, you may feel the challenge of speaking out is risky and you may be afraid of making mistakes.

A coach or mentor can help in this situation by reminding you of the beliefs that are so different in this culture.  They can also provide practice opportunities to help you grow in competence and subsequent confidence. Ask for feedback regarding verbal and non-verbal communication.  Eye-contact, posture and hand gestures can all be misunderstood across cultural differences especially in the context of PD.

For a manager or team leader of someone who is from a HPD culture the relationship you build is of critical importance.  Tell them that you value the input of every team member including them, that no question is a stupid question and that you want to hear from them.  Create a space that makes it easier and safer for all team members to contribute and, when you have created that space, ask for their input.   

The challenges will obviously be different if you came from a HPD culture and you yourself were of high status.  You may feel this informality is disrespectful –even rude.   Your team members’ questions and discussions may feel as though they are challenging not just your authority but also your skill and knowledge. The decision-making process may seem much slower and less efficient than when it was just up to you.  Managing a group of equals may seem exhausting –especially if you don’t have your corner office to retreat to and shut the door, but are located (shock and horror) in the open-plan area alongside your team. 

You may find it helpful to speak with a coach and discuss any feelings of loss from the status change and to clarify the subtle ways respect is shown in this culture –even to those who may be ‘below’ you.  You may need feedback on how your communications are sounding – the risk is your style may sound commanding or overbearing in this culture.  You may need to learn to use qualifiers to soften your communication.  

These beliefs are things we often take for granted – we don’t unpack what we absorbed growing up – so it can be difficult to adapt to these differences.  In the next blog, I’ll speak about the challenges often facing someone moving from a LPD to a HPD culture.


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