Is Your Culture Flat or Hierarchical?

The United States has class boundaries.  There are CEOs and worker bees.  The upper crust and the average Joe.

But Americans rankle at the notion that the rich and powerful are better than we are.  We like to think of our country as egalitarian.  The elite may have more money than we have, but our culture says they’re not better than we are. 

We often see a culture’s orientation in the expressions it uses to convey an idea. Take a look at these American English expressions.

Get off your high horse!

Who died and made him Pope?

She’s not the boss of me.

Look at Mr. High & Mighty there!

Don't get too big for your britches.

Don't get above your raising.

Do you think you’re better than everyone else?

He thinks his shit don’t stink.

Who does she think she is?

Don’t you be putting on airs. 

In leadership positions, executives are expected to "pitch in," to be a “regular guy,” to be one of the team.  Take for example, multi-millionaire Mitt Romney and his 2012 presidential campaign.  He often tried to downplay his wealth by attending campaign events in blue jeans and an open-collared shirt.  He was filmed handing out food to victims in New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy. 

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Brian Snyder/Reuters

In an earlier blog post, I talked about Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris and his willingness to humble himself at a public event showcasing the company’s commitment to clean water.  On the other side, CEOs run the risk of sounding arrogant and uncaring, as did British Petroleum chairman Carl-Henrik Svanberg after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. 

Americans prefer their leaders to be humble and willing to mingle with everyone in the company. To members of hierarchical cultures, this may seem undignified and unobservant of obvious class distinctions.

Does your culture lean egalitarian or hierarchical?  Here is a chart to show tendencies toward sharing power (flatter cultures) or concentrating power (hierarchical cultures).*  Where is your home culture?


                                                                       * based on TMA’s Country Navigator (scale of 1-10)

More important, now, what do you do with this information? Well, if you’re working on a project with a person from a culture with a big gap in hierarchy, you will want to watch out. For example, if your boss comes from a much more hierarchical background, you may feel your skills and judgment aren't appreciated, that you’re being micromanaged instead of left alone to figure out good solutions.  If your boss comes from a flatter culture than yours, you may think he/she isn’t giving you enough direction or is incapable of decision-making.

Before making negative judgments about a client or co-worker or manager from another culture, ask yourself if they are operating under a different model.  It could be their behavior is appropriate—in another setting!

Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.