Davao Diary: Power Distance

I downloaded David Livermore’s Cultural Intelligence series from Audible (Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence To Adapt, Wherever You Are), and I’m still listening to it. I read his Leadership with Cultural Intelligence book (I like the series from Audible better because it’s more in depth, but that is also why I haven’t finished it yet). I also looked over his blog and website, which I don’t really like at all- I find it confusing and lightweight when it comes to helpful information, and I went there in the first place because in his book he recommended the website for further info which I cannot find on the website- a list of favourite movies he recommends for increasing your cultural intelligence. Still, in every one of the resources I’ve perused, I have found information that helps me assess and understand things I observe here in the Philippines.

Obviously, not every single interaction can be explained or interpreted through cultural differences alone. For instance, while in American culture it is considered direct, honest, and straightforward to look people in the eye, and in some Asian and African cultures it’s considered aggressive and disrespectful, I am an American who does not look people in the eye very often. I can’t maintain eye contact for long at all- even with my husband, I break off eye contact quickly. So this is very outside the American norm. It tends to be a common trait among those who experience long term abuse as children, as well as survivors of torture and prisoners of war (because all three of these have much in common). So, while in my own country, this puts me at a disadvantage as it appears shifty and unreliable, in some cultures it is seen as more polite and respectful than the average American, but neither perspective is the accurate one for me personally. There are various other reasons to consider when somebody seems to be acting outside what you understood to be the cultural norm.

It’s important to keep that in mind- generalizations are incredibly helpful when understanding other cultures, but you need to combine that knowledge with personal relationships, some careful observations, and so on.

Anyway, he sorts cultural differences into six main categories (this is all a huge generalization). One of the most interesting to me is something called ‘power distance,’ which he defines loosely:

Low Power Distance:

Emphasis on equality; shared decision-making

High Power Distance:
Emphasis on differences in status; superiors make decisions

One of the interesting distinctions here plays out when Mindanao islanders are attempting to explain why they adore President Duterte and will hear no ill of him (not that I have anything to say, but based on what I’ve read)- first of all, he is truly one of their own. In an island nation with over 140 different dialects, and I don’t know how many tribes and divisions, this president is from DAvao City, and they love him. Secondly, the explanation I commonly see in the paper is, “He’s a strong leader, he’s like your father….” and right there, the American mind balks, because we slurp up a hostility to paternalism in our mother’s milk, the air we breathe, the ground on which stand, the sun, the rain, and the wind. We don’t admire or aspire to have a leader treat us as a father treats his children. That is not because we are right and they are wrong.  It is not because they are right and we are wrong.

It is because we are Americans who live in a culture with more middling power distance- on a scale of 1-100 Americans in general score around 40.

The Philippines have a high score- 94 (from this website)

“Power Distance
This dimension deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal – it expresses the attitude of the culture towards these inequalities amongst us. Power Distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.

At a score of 94, The Philippines is a hierarchical society. This means that people accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. Hierarchy in an organization is seen as reflecting inherent inequalities, centralization is popular, subordinates expect to be told what to do and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat.”

The US doesn’t have the lowest score- I suspect we think we are lower in power distance than we are. But still, the difference between 40 and 94 is pretty significant.

Power Distance US- 40

“The fact that everybody is unique implies that we are all unequal. One of the most salient aspects of inequality is the degree of power each person exerts or can exert over other persons; power being defined as the degree to which a person is able to influence other people’s ideas and behavior.

This dimension deals with the fact that all individuals in societies are not equal, and it expresses the attitude of the culture toward these power inequalities amongst us. Power distance is defined as the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. It has to do with the fact that a society’s inequality is endorsed by the followers as much as by the leaders.”

This means we have had to get used to being called sir/ma’am a lot, by loads of people, everywhere. This means that we cannot call the taxi driver or the security guard at the school ‘sir’ without making them really, really uncomfortable, even when they are older than we are. Maybe we could if we were 20, I am not sure. But I know we can’t in our fifties. It means almost nobody but a couple local neighborhood children feel comfortable calling us by our first names, and those two exceptions are actually being cheeky little rascals and it is my responsibility to insist that they not call me by my first name, or worse, ‘Hey, you, Candy?’ but in fact look a bit stern and tell them to call me Tita or Lola. I am not being a good neighbor or a good adult if I pretend not to notice.

This means that I have a housekeeper, a helper, who comes two days a week who wants to be told exactly what to do and doesn’t want me dithering around saying things like, “Well, what do you think needs to be done,” and “if you feel like it” or “if you have time.”
This means that my Filipino friends think it’s amusing and rather strange that I cringe about asking her to clean my shoes (I haven’t even told them I sometimes clean my toilet before she gets here).

This also means that it is my responsibility, unlike the housekeeper/employer relationship in the US, to make sure she has a snack at 10 in the morning, and in most places again at 2 or 3, although ours doesn’t seem to want the second one. It also means it is my responsibility to provide her lunch. I can provide the food and ask her to cook it, but you are not being a good employer if you don’t plan to provide food for your helper’s lunch. This means if she comes to work on a holiday I pay extra and during the Christmas break I need to give her a pretty nice bonus even though she may be gone most of the month, and a gift for her family (she’s single, but will likely be going home to her parents’ at Christmas, so a basket of ingredients for a spaghetti meal would be much appreciated, for other cultural reasons).
And it means that the helper usually will not sit down at the table with you to eat lunch, although this varies, I am told, based on how familiar the helper is with Americans and how often she has worked for them.

It also means, this power distance, that when I was at the theater watching a movie, and in a scene where a married adult male with daddy issues bluntly said to his father, “Nobody invited you to come to my house,” the Filipinos in the row behind me gasped in audible shock, and I kind of hunkered down in my seat in embarrassment because it had only seemed slightly rude to me, not unspeakably shocking.

This means a lot of things that I obviously don’t have a good grasp on since I’m an American, but also, since I am in my fifties and an outsider (a guest) and often the customer or client or employer in my relationships, or old enough to be everybody’s mother in most of my friendships, nobody can actually tell me up front and directly when I mess up.

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One Comment

  1. Lisa Beth W.
    Posted July 13, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting, as usual!

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