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  • May 2009
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Power Distance in Jordanian Culture

I have two other posts brewing – one on the Pope’s visit and another on the local zoo, but while those are percolating a little here’s a thought on . . .

Power distance in Jordanian Culture

In grad school we learned about “Power Distance” and the role it plays in culture.  Anyone who has had any significant cross-cultural experiences outside of the United States has probably noticed the effect power distance has on relationships and especially expected social responses.  I don’t have a text book definition for you but basically it is a way of classifying how power is distributed, expressed, and accepted (or not) within the society.  Countries are often classified as “High” or “Low” power distance, but most fall somewhere along a continuum.

In high power distance cultures there is a definite stratification of society.   The roles that social classes play in society are well defined, even if not clearly articulated.  Those in lower strata show deference to those in higher strata in various ways.  There is little chance to break out of one’s social strata.  Social strata are not merely determined by economic standing, but often also by “tribal” and family status.  In truly high power distance countries this is accepted as the norm of life, even by the “have-nots.”  In high power distance countries the roles of “patron” and “servant” are important, and people seem to intuitively know who is above and below them in the pecking order of life.  Often it is expected that people help the less fortunate while also serving those in better standing, in part knowing that someday a “patron” may come through for them in a sticky moment.

In a high power distance culture the king was meant to be a king and the pauper a pauper.  They will always remain that way and treat each other accordingly.  For the most part they are ok with that.

In low power distance cultures the stratification of society is less distinct.  The stratification that does exist is often upon economic lines.  There is an inherent belief in the culture that every person is (or can be) of equal standing.  There is an informality in the culture that allows people of different social classes to interact casually.  People on either end of the social-strata tend to obscure their true social standing, prefering to blend into the middle of society.  Titles and family lineage mean less than they do in high power distance countries.  Any sort of “patronage” system is often seen as wrong as one should accomplish thing’s on one’s own merits not based on who they know.  Even the lower strata of society should be treated with respect and equality.

In the low power distance culture the pauper may someday become king and the king a pauper.  The king may treat the pauper with respect even though the pauper thumbs his nose at the king.

All this to share with you one small vignette from our graduation ceremony from last night.  After songs were sung, speeches made and diplomas handed out the couple of hundred folks who were gathered were to share a meal together.   The director of the school made a few comments about the food service and said, “And of course let . . .”

How would you finish the sentence?

Let the graduates and their families go first?  The elderly?  Special guests?  Families with small children?

I think how you finish that sentence says alot about the power distance in the culture.

I can’t say verbatim, but it went something like, “And of course let our special guests, teachers, board members, graduates, and community leaders get in line  first.”

Several of us with small children were sitting near each other and just kind of laughed.  I’m so used to stateside people letting parents with small children go first when it comes to getting food.  One of the community leaders in attendance was an American friend of ours she came over and talked to us.  We asked why she wasn’t in line with the other VIPs and she said it made her feel weird because she wasn’t any different than anyone else.

Although I was slightly annoyed when we finally got through the line and the only thing left for our kids was rice full of nuts, onions, peas and carrots and roasted chicken with arab spices (not kid friendly – at least for our kids), I was also slightly amused by this obvious display of power distance being played out.  One culture seeing that people fall in different categories in society and that people with special status should be served first.  The other culture seeing that all people are equal and those with special needs should be served first.  Neither are inherently wrong or right, just very different.  Thoughts?  Comments?


2 Responses

  1. Our son didn’t care for the chicken and picked through the rice a bit, but surprisingly ate almost a half a plate of runny laban! Who knew he would like that?

    Getting something to eat later at home was our conclusion too.

  2. Funny, I noticed the same thing. What actually annoyed me was that some of the guests went back for seconds before the rest of us got firsts. That was a shame. Luckily, we had some with us who fell into the first category and got plates with enough for the kids too :).

    And they are simply very different perspectives on life. I guess for me, I figured well, I can always go home and eat something nice, maybe some fo the others wouldn’t have had that option…

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