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?

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Intercultural Note #2 – It’s a Man’s World

There is no question that here in Jordan it’s a man’s world.  There are the obvious indicators:

  • Many women cover their head and wear conservative Islamic clothing, while men wear pretty much whatever they want (although rarely shorts in public and usually conservative by American standards).
  • Only men can sit in the front seat of taxis.  Women have to sit in the back and wrangle the kids.  I would also note that the only working seatbelts are in the front.  So the the women and kids often sit in the back unrestrained (kids) and unprotected (women & kids).
  • In the evening (in our neighborhood) the men sit out on the street shooting the breeze and smoking narghile, while the women stay inside and . . . I’m not sure what b/c I’m a man and don’t know – but imagine it includes a lot of kid-wrangling and cleaning.

After being here a few months I have a few follow-up observations on these three cultural observations (I don’t know if I amright or wrong on any of this – so comments are welcome, esp. from those who have lived here in Jordan).

  • Jordan is actually very progressive (for the Middle East) when it comes to clothing and women. The queen never covers her head (that I know of) and many women can be seen wearing conservative, but Western style attire with no head covering.  Then there are the young 20-somethings who wear their designer jeans and tight shirts and cover their heads.  I haven’t quite figured them out.  And then there are those who cover their head partially and those who go for the full veiling.  The question on my mind is this – who decides? Is it up to the woman or the man? The other question is does it really matter?  For us Westerners it seems to be the ultimate affront for a man to decide what a woman will wear.  But is it really an individual man who is making the decision our an entire culture?   Does that make it right or wrong?
  • When it comes to men and women in taxis it comes down to this – in public non-married men and women do not closely associate together (in terms of physical proximity).  Apparently only 1 or 2 female taxi drivers exist in Amman.  So in almost every case if a woman sat in the front she would be sitting next to a man she is not married to. I think the woman sitting in the back is a way of protecting her honor.  Admittedly there should be working seatbelts back there.  If we ever happen to get one of the women drivers I will happily let my wife sit in the front.  It’s funny, because in the States everyone sits in the backof the taxi so it’s not really an issue.  Here I think it seems bad because there is something that a man is allowed to do that a woman is not.  BUt again, is this restricting her freedom or offering her some sort of protection?  (and protecting something often requires restriction of freedom, but then the question can be asked what if the something/someone does not want/need to be protected).
  • About the men sitting on the street – I wonder if this is a carry-over from bedouin times?  One can argue about how much a man should help women with the cleaning and kid-wrangling, but this network of men on the street offers a very effective community watch program.  And in bedoiun days (that are not so far off – perhaps 2 generations) perhaps this was a very necessary and valid function for men to be outside the house/tent serving as gaurdians of the family.

In a less obvious way the Arabic language indicates that it is a man’s world.  As with many languages there is a marked disctinction between male and female words.  There is the whole issue of objects being male or female (which I don’t get at all), but then things also change depending on if you are talking to a man or a woman.  There are different pronouns and verb endings. Right from saying “Hello, how are you,” many things are different depending on which gender you areaddressing.  There are even different words to indentify your uncles, aunts, and cousins on your father’s side vs. the uncles, aunts, and cousins on your mother’s side.  Your father’s sister is your “3ami” and your mother’s sister is your “xalti“.

Of course, this only indicates a high degree of gender seperation, not necessarily male-bias.  However,I recently came across an interesting linguistic artifact.  The slang term for prison – are you ready for this?  “Bayt Xaltak” or in other words your “Mother’s Sister’s house.”  Yup.  She must have been one bad woman.  Of course in English we call it “the Big House” I just never knew it belonged to my aunt.  What about you?

Intercultural Note #1

Just a quick post to share a couple of the many intercultural lessons we have been learning. I will continue to do so over the next several months.  Some will be gleaned from real-life experience, others from what people tell us/teach us.  It seems as though there is no end of opinion about the differences between Jordanian culture and American-type cultures.  We have received a lot of anecdotal advice from anyone who has been in country over 2 months, but also some really good teaching from people in the country for decades.

Hear are a couple of things gleaned recently from a lecture given by one of the latter. He was reflecting on the influences of bedouin culture on people who may not be living as bedouins today, but still retain certain cultural practices even though they may not know why.

  • Place of Honor – The most important guest should be seated in the chair (or preferably couch) farthest from the door.  A few people have told us this.  This seems to indicate prominence.  But it also seems to have something to do with you as host giving that person some comfort and security.  In bedouin times this seat would be farthest from the flap of the tent and the elements and intruders perhaps.
  • Standing to Greet Guests – It is customary for all people seated in the room to stand and greet a new guest who has arrived whether you know them or not.  This is apparently true when visiting in people’s homes, but I have also witnessed the phenomenon in the mobile shop and the carpet store.  I always thought this was just another marker of the politeness connected to social gatherings in this culture; however, there is deeper significance.  This custom also makes it easier for the seating of guests to be reshuffled in case a more important guest arrives and should be in the place of honor.  The relative importance of seats (and people) flows away from the place of honor.  Doesn’t this cultural fact give so much richness to the following saying of Jesus:

When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”      – Jesus in Luke 14:8-10

  • Giving Stuff to Those Who Admire It: I have often heard it said not to admire anything of your host’s because they will give it to you.  Or, if someone admires something of yours that you should give it to them. This is a funny one, because I have heard this many, many times but have never seen it in action.  It is a very common piece of cross-cultural training for anyone going to the Middle East.  But, truly, I’ve never witnessed it take place.  But the origin of this is interesting – the lecturer said that for a Bedouin the only thing they truly possess is their honor.  They typically have very little stuff, and what they do have is fleeting.   But honor is lasting and is passed down from generation to generation.  Someone from a bedouin background can deal with something happening to their stuff – but never their honor.

Does honor play a role in American culture back in the States?  Certainly not to this extent.  Or maybe it’s just different.  Maybe we honor our guests by letting them sit wherever they want and drink whatever they want (Serving food and beverage is a whole other post).  Being free to choose is so important to Americans, but seems less so here.  Honor and status play such a very important part here in our new culture.  The tricky part is learning what brings honor and what doesn’t as such different cultural values are in play!

As always I would love your thoughts, questions, and feedback, esp. as it relates to the place honor/shame play in your own culture.  And please, if any Jordanians are reading – give your feedback on the cultural points above. Are they accurate?

Arabic Language Correction

In my last post I gave the Arabic compliment and response you use when somebody gets a hair cut, but I was only half right. I copied the wrong response from my notes.  So here’s the correction.

When someone get’s a haircut you say to them:

نّيماً or “na3iiman” which literally means “Grace”

the response is always, اللّه ينعِم عّليك “allah yn3im 3layk” which literally means “God’s grace on you”

What a friendly way to say “nice haircut!”

Sorry for the confusion =)  And please, any speakers of Arabic feel free to correct me in the comments!