One of the book that sits on my night stand in the pile "to read" is a book by Geert Hofstede, called Cultures and Organizations, Intercultural Coorperation and its Importance for Survival. Hofstede is one of the most invoked gurus of intercultural communication, and although I yet have to read the book, I have already been in contact with his theory, one pillar of which is the subject of this post.

Hofstede measures differences in cultures using 4 different scales. Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity and Uncertainty Avoidance. I had never until recently paid much atttention to those in my own backyard (it is always easier to point out these things in others) but the organisation of the Wikimania conference did bring me face to face with the very real differences in Power Distance in my work environment.

I work for an American-based organisation. Although it is not "per se" exclusively American, it draws most of its work structures from the American way of management, a structure where the distance to power is rather small. The wiki-culture which underlies some of the work behaviours in the organisation is also a very flat kind of structure, where people, regardless of their place in society, their educational background or their age are considered at the same level. As such, Wikimania (the International Wikimedia Conference) leaves a lot for volunteers of all horizons to organize, whether it is the program of the conference or various other aspects, such as promotional material or speakers invitations.

This year, Wikimania took place in Alexandria, Egypt, in partnership with the Library of Alexandria. And working with Egypt brought about a challenge that I did not expect, that of dealing with a very different structure of Power Distance. As mentionned, Wikimedia (the organisation) is a rather flat structure, it is easy for staff to talk to their bosses and vice-versa, and rapidity and rationality of communication often prevails over following tortuous (or even straight) hierarchical paths. The Egyptian culture, on the other hand, has a very big distance to power. Which means that people at the top of the hierarchy issue very clear directives, while people at the bottom of the hierarchical scale will not act without approval from "above". The French Power Distance index is somewhere in the middle, more distant than the US, but flatter than the Egyptian [1] .

This made for an extremely interesting constellation in exchanges between the wiki-based (and/or American) team, the local Egyptian team and myself. As a French, I was often torn between the understanding I had of the Egyptian need to refer to authority before making any kind of decision, while at the same time having to deal with the fact that Egyptians had trouble understanding why some people were empowered to make decisions without a title that would confer them this authority, or without any other mandate than the one they had given themselves. I realized how strongly my culture played a role in interacting with all parties.

After having analyzed both sides' expectations, it was rather easy for me to act with each side as they expected, but I found it extremely difficult to be the person in the middle, and to convey the culture differences which should have been respected. With Egyptians, it was very unnatural for me to try and flatten the relationships as would be expected in the culture of the organisation of Wikimania. With wiki-based and/or Americans, it was very unnatural for me to try and convey the existence of power distance necessary to understand relationships with the Egyptian locals.

Of course, this is a generalization of what happened in the organisation of this conference, as it is extremely difficult to put people in one or the other category, but it showed me how entrenched some of my cultural traits are, and how difficult it is, if you find yourself halfway between two diametrically opposed cultures, to try and bridge the gap, no matter how well you understand both cultures.


[1] See the different indexes on this table, where Arab countries have a Power Distance Index of 80, France of 68 and the US of 40