« Professional effectiveness (part three) | Main | Collectivist and individualist cultures »

Coming to terms with power distance

February 29, 2008

Hello again,

Western trained teachers often look east to seek teaching posts. This often means a move from a country whose culture has a low power distance ...

...to one with a high power distance.

Power distance is "the extent to which it the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and except that power is distributed unequally". (Hofstede, 1991)

Low power distance means that the culture is egalitarian and people are respected as individuals not because they occupy a specific rank or play a certain role. People are more casual in their dealings with each other and formality is often translated as stiffness or coldness. Students do not revere their teachers but interact in a friendly way with them, often using first names. In class students are not afraid to discuss issues and express opinions freely.

In high power distance cultures people expect and respect rules of behaviour in their interactions with others. The use of formal titles and forms of address is normal. In these cultures students tend to be passive and may be reluctant to participate in communicative activities because they are not used to speaking in front of their superiors. Indeed, such cultures do not encourage students to think independently, rather to follow the example of the teacher, who is held in high esteem. Teachers who attempt a more relaxed and casual approach can find that students are puzzled and unsettled by this attempt to subvert the power balance. Students will expect the teacher to dress formally, to be authoritative and to maintain a distance from them.

This does not mean that the teacher has to turn into a dictator. But it does mean treading carefully and changing tone gradually. Observe how the native staff members behave and at first do likewise. Introduce more communicative work gradually perhaps with group or pair work that is highly structured. Encourage reading and listening activities that highlight cultural differences so that students become aware of other cultural styles.

If your students are planning to study at a western university then it will be important for you work on cross-cultural awareness with them to help them prepare for the differences they will encounter.

One of the great benefits of traveling abroad to work is the opportunity to gain insights into different cultures and different ways of thinking. If you go with an open mind and a respect or the host country, you will be able both to learn yourself and help your students widen their horizons.

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


  1. Carolyn Says:

    Very valuable reminder, and a good trigger for further thought and investigation. Learning to function in a truly useful capacity in another culture is complicated by hidden differences that can take a long time, and often a good bit of upset to uncover. I lived in another country teaching last year for 6 months, and it took all that time just to begin to become aware of my own ethnocentrism...it's unconscious and often below thought level. Thanks for the good article.

  1. Dominic Jermano Says:

    It sounds to me that teachers who come from the USA a low power distance country to China a high power country are seeking more structure and rules compared to how things are in the west.

    Yet saying a large number of western teachers coming to China is far from in between. It is scant to say the least, because of the brainwashing Universities give to students becoming teachers on the subject of political identity meaning one is a Communist Country and Good ole USA is not. If I had a choice to teach in the West or East, hands down I would choose the East.

    You state that students in high power distance cultures are more prone to be passive students in comparison to students interaction from the West, but I think that is not the case. At least students in the East with their respect toward each other and toward their teachers do not bring guns to school and wipe out the class in a shooting rampage that seems to happen on a regular basis in the USA. In fact I would call class settings in the West far to lax and far to aggressive when it comes to student behavior and Student Teacher relationships.

    What I see from the East/in Asia is that many Teachers are an extended parent to the students, and not just somebody off the street like some Mall Clerk Teacher who is teaching us the essence of Victoria's Secrets underwear.

    The East has real culture in my opinion and the West has only a killing culture or it would not be constantly at War all the time.

    It's plain as day to see when the West always has its motive to spread its ideals throughout the world when it has none really, while the East is content to live and let be, and support each other with respect and proper manners, without intruding in other countries affairs. It sure is a telling difference.

  1. emmett denison Says:

    I've taught in China 2003 to 2005. I found the students eager to learn and very respectful. The most rewarding experience was teaching 4-5-6 year old in kindergarten the children we're a pure joy to be with. My evening classes we're with 18 to 30 year old and the same respect transended as with the younger students. Power within the chinese culture is from within, there is little they can do about it so they concentrate on their own personal goals

Post a Comment



Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)