Great expectations: Dealing with power distance (by Sibylle Ganz-Koechlin)

A few months ago, I got a call from my friend Susan. Susan has been the headmistress of a large school in a popular suburb of Bern for over 15 years. “You deal with all things intercultural – so help me out here,” was her opening statement.

The story was about a 14-year-old student from an Eastern European country. The boy was in big trouble with his form teacher. He was aggressive towards most of his classmates and quite impertinent with the headmistress herself, as well as immune to all kinds of talks. After a particularly nasty incident, the teachers decided to exclude the boy from a school outing. A meeting with the boy’s father was planned, and that’s when Susan called me.

Listening to Susan, another story came to mind. It was told to me during my studies in Intercultural Communication, by a journalist and professor from the same country as the aforementioned boy.

“My family migrated to Germany when I was eight years old,” his story went. “My father took me to school and we were taken to the headmaster’s office. The headmaster asked my father to sit down, and when he offered me a chair as well, I knew that something could not be right in this country. Where I come from, I would have kissed the headmaster’s hand, and we would, of course, have remained standing in front of the headmaster’s desk.”

In Switzerland, teachers (I was one myself for many years) are trained to take a participative approach, to explain what they are doing and why, to encourage before correcting and to punish their students only when all else has failed. But in my experience, dealing with students or children from cultures where the power distance is large, this pedagogical approach is often not understood or mistaken for total lack of discipline. In accepting hierarchies and a certain inequality due to a person’s standing in life or in their jobs, people from high-power distance environments can tend to expect hierarchical behaviour, meaning, in this case, that the headmistress was expected to take the “tough boss” attitude of the one who lays down the law.

Susan was convinced. “I’ve suspected for a while now that sometimes I need to take a very definitive stand and let people know exactly who the boss is, even if I’m not an authoritative person and don’t aspire to be one,” she told me.

The meeting with the boy and his father went smoothly. The father’s expectations were met and Susan  left  no doubt about her support of the measures taken by the teachers. The boy was impressed, having witnessed his headmistress calmly informing about the decided punishment – informing, but not discussing the appropriateness of the taken measures.

“This meeting and its positive outcome were a confirmation of many considerations of the past years,” Susan confessed later. “It has just taken me ten years to put them into practice, and take an authoritarian stance when it’s expected of me – and I regret not having talked to an interculturalist long before.”

Sibylle Ganz-Koechlin was born in Basel, the tri-state area of Switzerland. She spent her first four years of school in five schools on two continents. What later became known as “interculturality” was her reality – a mindset that has defined her ever since. She feels lucky to have made her passion to her job. www.trainingthetrainers.ch

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