I have always marveled at my husband’s ability to stay calm not only under pressure but also in the presence of authority. When I am in the US, the mere site of a police car can make me shudder. Am I doing everything right? Am I driving ok? Do all my lights work? He laughs at me because he thinks I am overly paranoid. I say its because he doesn´t understand how frustrating it is to be pulled over. He still maintains that I am paranoid.
Over the years I have noticed his confidence around all ‘authority figures’ and my general underlying fear and reverence for them. I began to wonder where this stemmed from. How was he always so cool, calm and confident whereas I get a little skittish in the face of ‘power’?
Then I learned about the concept of power distance. Power distance is a term that describes how people belonging to a specific culture view power relationships (superior-subordinate relationships).
People who come from cultures with a high power distance are very deferential to figures of authority and generally accept an unequal distribution of power, while individuals in cultures with a low power distance readily question authority and expect to participate in decisions that affect them.
I discovered that Denmark has one of the lowest power distance rankings in the world while Mexico, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and China have some of the highest. The United States falls somewhere in the middle.
In Danish schools, kids call teachers by their first names. Teachers have an important job but they don't require a Mr. or Mrs. in front of their name to distinguish them. Students, meanwhile, are encouraged to use their voice and question what is taught and to participate in the learning process as equals.
Parents don´t govern with fear either. So the power distance is also low between parents and kids. Respect goes both ways between an adult and a child. All ages of children have a voice and they are really listened to, even the toddlers. Kids aren’t brushed aside with ”you do as I say because I said so (and I am important)”.
Parents are considered important because they have earned that importance through listening, guiding and explaining things rather than hitting or barking rules with no explanation.
Compared to other cultures, there are also a lot less rules for children. Parents and teachers trust kids a lot more to be trustworthy (at all ages). And this lack of rule focus and low power distance creates a very different kind of confidence in the long run – both in yourself because you understand rules as having real meaning and in the face of others because you have learned not to be afraid or blindly revering of ‘power’.
Authority figures are seen as people with a job just like everyone else. They are just as respected as a janitor. Some people think that this kind of system could create anarchy, but it does just the opposite.
When people are taught to respect others and are treated with respect, all across the power board, they become respectful in turn.
And an added upside to this is that it makes you much more open to seeing people without a Mr, Mrs, Dr, MBA or PhD attached to their names as important too.
The ability to discover something in everyone is quite possibly the most powerful lesson of all.
Jessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo.