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.

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