Cultural Values, Power, and Event Protocol

Earlier this week in Indonesia, before I went up to give a speech, I was introduced to the audience exactly three times. Three different Important People of the sponsoring organization went to the podium and read the same bio to the same audience. Three. Times. In a row.

In addition to re-introducing me, each Important Person re-thanked other important people in the room, one-by-one, using their full titles, and then riffed yet again on the goals of the event. There were various other formalities related to these Important People like photographs and staged handshakes. It went beyond typical, lovely Asian hospitality: as the audience sat captive, the Important People were making sure everyone in the room knew they were important.

My worldly Indonesian interpreter told me these time-wasting rituals are left over from the Suharto regime. Interesting! Dictators are in the business of keeping the masses subservient. Beyond killing dissenters, I’d imagine a savvy dictator would try to psychologically disarm the people through the careful manipulation of social situations. Since explicit power plays can be self-defeating, dictators (and entrenched interests in general) might cultivate obedience by introducing small customs that subtly reinforce the power of those who hold it.

In my experience, what happened in Indonesia happens in almost every part of the world. I’ve personally witnessed such over-the-top obsession with titles and power at events in Latin America and Asia. I’m told Africa is the same.

It’s not as intense in Europe it seems, though there is still an emphasis on formal status and on highlighting the differences between people even if those differences are irrelevant to the topic at hand. I remember listening to Martin Wolf being introduced in St. Gallen, Switzerland, and hearing first about his degree from LSE 40 years ago instead of his rich journalistic career. I also remember looking at my friend’s EU passport on that trip and, to my astonishment, seeing that it listed his advanced degrees (PhD, J.D.) next to his name on the main passport ID page, as if academic degrees were as important as gender when crossing a border.

These customs reveal certain underlying values in a society.

In an older post I discussed the cultural ethos of Formality vs. Casualness. Casualness — in attire, in manner of speaking, in the way names are presented on paper — maximizes commonality among people. Formality maximizes difference. A related dichotomy is Past vs. Future. Past emphasizes past accomplishments and titles, your family and cultural history, and gives great deference to elders. Future emphasizes what you are doing today and who you aspire to be tomorrow. Future-oriented cultures, for better or worse, favor the energy of youth over the wisdom of elders. America is a decidedly casual, future-oriented culture, and this is partly what makes it unique.

In any case, it’s interesting that cultural values of this sort can appear so visibly in how events are staged and speakers introduced.

8 comments on “Cultural Values, Power, and Event Protocol
  • I love the Formality vs. Casualness + Past vs. Future way of viewing culture. Here comes the geek in me but I wonder if there is any way to measure that other than simply asking people’s perceptions. I would *love* to see a chart plotting all the countries, even if only perception-based.

  • I suspect that the formality vs. casualness on one hand and past and future orientation would correlate highly with the Power Distance Index that M. Gladwell describes in Outliers. If Ben had not mentioned it, I would have been forced to add that long windy speeches and repetition by people who think themselves important is also an African staple. Note that in some parts of Africa, even engineers use that noun as a formal title!

  • My wife ran a series of public lectures about science in which there were no introductions at all — the lights dimmed (causing audience chatter to stop), then came back up again as the speaker walked out on stage (to applause), and they simply began. Biographical details were left in the written program. The speakers sometimes found this approach briefly uncomfortable, but I have no doubt it improved the audience’s experience a great deal. Imagine a rock band that had the sort of introduction you often see at more formal events…

  • IN many European countries it is illegal to call oneself ‘Doctor’ without a real degree. Due to the emphasis on honorifics, this creates a market.
    One gentleman would sell Europeans LLC’s say called Doctor John Smith, LLC which people would use to as a business name (make my checks out to Doctor John Smith, LLC). This got around to legal rules and lead people to think, “hey, Doctor Smith”

    (found in: “How to Be Invisible” by J.J. Luna)

  • Another downside of being formal is that you start with a high bar, denying yourself the liberty to under-perform (or so to over-deliver)…When you are casual, you don’t offer yourself to be rated and so would enjoy the state of being just you.

  • Hi Ben,

    I’ve been reading your blog for over year now and I got to say I love both this site as well as your book, which I’m just about to finish in a day or two.

    I’d like to comment here on two things:
    1) There are many European countries and many cultural differences there. You will find countries like Germany or Switzerland where you have very big emphasiss on titles. The reason for this is however the love for being competent and the love for experts, not the power distance per se. You will also have other countries, where you would never find “PHD” on your business card ;).

    2) The USA case you’re relating to is more connected with high Individualism and Masculinity. This means that everyone has a chance to succed and everyone has the same starting point. In other words – the rules need to be equal. That means “no matter what your college / university / degree was” – to some degree.

    Relating to the future orientation – to some point yes, however if you take the Long Term Orientation dimension of the national culture – you will not find USA as being too much long time oriented.

    You can see more at great site: with characteristics of different countries on the left. It’s the concept that M. Gladwell related to in Outliers. Great model that explains a lot. And there’s also very nice iPhone app – “Cultural GPS” (or something like that) which is great if you travell a lot. Oh, I wrote quite a long comment here, hope it wasn’t boring. All best, keep up with the great work.

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