Decode A Culture – Formal Vs. Informal

Have you ever noticed how people from the USA or Canada seem so informal with their bosses – right from referring to them by their first name, spending time with them after office hours, to even calling them out when there is a difference of opinions?

On the other hand, people from India or China refer to their bosses by their last name coupled with either their degree (Dr.) or a title (Mr. Chairman). In some languages, there are specific suffixes created just for the purpose of showing respect. E.g. “Ji” in Hindi, “Garu” in Telugu, “San” in Japanese. In these cultures people may not feel comfortable spending time with their bosses just for “fun”, and generally speaking, they do not question their bosses or easily show disagreement.

Why does this happen?

The answer lies is a cultural indicator called “Power Distance”. This is the difference in the perceived power or authority between two individuals. Depending on the cultural norms, there are many factors that can provide you “power” – money, knowledge, higher position at a workplace, social status, age, and gender. When you possess one or more of these power attributing characteristics, you are automatically viewed as an authority or somebody with higher “power”.

It is a human nature to perceive such power as a distinguishing factor among people. For example, elderly members in a family get asked for advice because of their age. It is assumed to be an indicator of their experience, and hence wisdom and power. A head of a country attracts more attention than us just because of their position.

While such a distinction exists in all cultures (more in some than others), cultures differ in the way they treat people with perceived power. There are cultures that view “power” as a factor that creates and maintains a distance between two individuals at different power levels. Such cultures are categorized broadly as formal cultures or high power distant cultures.

Let’s see how this reflects in our behavior.

Formal Cultures:

Individuals influenced by formal cultures are tuned to notice the difference in the power, and treat somebody at a higher power with a distance. Distance shows respect. It conveys, “I am not trying to compete with your power”. Almost like how animals establish boundaries with a pack leader.

How does this value exhibit in the behavior?

We have already seen the formal way of addressing.

Not questioning or showing disagreement with the authority is also a sign of perceived power distance. For example, in many formal cultures such as India or China, children are taught not to question a parent’s orders even at a later age. This is an indicator of power attribution due to age.

When you are trained to think that respect comes through power, you also learn different ways of indicating your power. Here’s an example: boasting in general is a turn-off for many human beings. People lose interest in what you have to say if they feel that you are full of yourself. However, formal cultures are more tolerant of this that informal cultures. Tactful people develop a way of politely “sneaking in” their power indicators in communication. For example, sharing where they live which may indicate how rich they are or talking about how respected their parents are in the community so that we know their social status.

Making somebody wait before they can meet you is an interesting way of showing power. They do this to indicate that they are busier than you, hence must have more important position than yours. Politicians, bureaucrats, police and law officers, CEOs often use this tactic. Even some bosses do this.

This can be irritating or nerve racking if this is a business meeting. But the takeaway here is that it is just a tactic, don’t let that throw you off balance while discussing major points in the meeting that is going to happen next.

In some middle-eastern cultures, a way of showing respect is not making an eye contact. Remember that story of my friend from Egypt? What I found as lack of confidence, and my American friends found disrespectful, was in fact, his way of showing the distance and respect. In his culture, men are expected to keep a distance from women. He was taught to maintain that distance by not making an eye contact.

One observation about gender related power – which gender commands higher power varies from culture to culture.

Notice that the word “power” in cultural context does not necessarily mean having the power to make a difference or make decisions. It is just a characteristic that creates “distance”. While looking at power due to gender, this definition becomes very clear.

In many cultures, women are perceived to be at a “higher power” but that does not mean they are not oppressed. That just means that men are expected to show them respect.

Unlike all other factors that provide you power, gender is the one that you are just born with, and didn’t have to do squat to achieve it. That’s why you are expected to work hard if you want to maintain what you automatically received. You are expected to behave in a way that is worthy of carrying that power.

Such cultures tend to have stricter perceived standards of how a woman should be. Any aberration from that standard can be perceived as lack of “womanhood” or “power”. In some extreme and rare instances, this has contributed to people feeling OK to punish a woman by “taking away her womanhood” as was a convict in the infamous “Nirbhaya” rape case in India was claiming to do.

Informal Cultures:

Informal cultures, on the other hand, are less power distant meaning the same amount of power difference creates less of a distance within two human beings, as compared to their formal cultured counterparts.

It is not that they do not see or understand what creates power. They do. They also understand that power creates some difference within individuals. However, in their mind, such power is nothing to be intimidated about or maintained a distance from.

For example, people in the USA may call a stranger they just met by their first name. But they do appreciate addressing the president as “President” and not by their first name.

How does this value exhibit in the behavior?

Individuals influenced by informal cultures are not as tuned to notice the difference in the power.

They are also not as inclined to distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd if they do possess power. Have you ever talked to a CEO from an informal culture? Sometimes you cannot even distinguish them from any other employees from the clothes they wear or their topics of conversation. They blend in which is not as likely for a CEO from a formal culture.

As the start-up culture becomes more and more prevalent in the USA, the power distance decreases even more. Just a decade ago, business people wanted to differentiate themselves by choosing corner offices, and wearing fancy suits. This trend is reducing, at least in some states, industries, and companies.

Since a person with power is not viewed as somebody at a totally different level, people from informal cultures do not hesitate as much while questioning their decisions or commenting on their opinions. It is seen more as a difference in opinions rather than disrespect. (Of course, smart people learn to say it the right way so that they do not appear rude or insensitive. 😉 )

Such cultures also tend to be more individualistic because every person is expected to work hard to get what they want in career and life. People with power may be perceived to get it is easily, but that does not mean that other people are not capable of breaking the barriers, should they choose to do so. Existence of an “American Dream” is a classic example of such attitude.

This is also the reason why people from informal cultures tend to be less forgiving of an individual’s performance. The logic behind this is that if you want power, you better perform well to get it. If you cannot be disciplined enough to work hard and smart, you cannot blame your situation on your fate. A culture that is informal and individualistic can be an epitome of “Each person on their own” type of thinking.

Quick Tips:

If you are dealing with somebody from a formal culture:

  1. Observe and understand what attributes power in that culture. If you are confused or not sure, ask your trusted advisers from that culture.
  2. Once you know, then make sure you show respect when you perceive power in others, in a way that they understand it. For example, simple gestures like not wearing shoes in places of worship, or not using curse words, or standing up when a person of power enters the room can go a long way in establishing friendships and business allies.
  3. When in doubt, err on the side of being formal. Even when people do not expect you to be formal, they will appreciate your desire to do so. And in every culture, that desire is interpreted as a sign of respect which makes people feel valued. It will earn you brownie points. Think how you address interviewers even in informal cultures – with Mr. or Ms., right?
  4. While scheduling business meetings and negotiations in formal cultures, schedule extra time than what you think will be needed. Power tactics such as making you wait before the meeting can come into play. But if you are not in a rush, that will not throw you off your game as they are intended to do. Impatience will only work against you.
  5. Make an effort to learn proper etiquette because maintaining the power distance is a big part of it. For example, in some countries like China and Japan where people sit at the dinner table depends on where they are in the power hierarchy. You do not want to offend people just because you were too lazy to understand their protocols.
  6. Finally, a note to all the people who were born in formal cultures but now live in an informal culture. Do not underestimate the (negative) impact your acquired informal gestures can have, when you visit home. You are already perceived as somebody who has “strayed away” from your home culture. This is one factor where you behavior in going to clash a lot with that of others. Be mindful of not doing that.

If you are dealing with somebody from an informal culture:

  1. When in doubt, err on the side of being formal. This advice sounds counter-intuitive. However, for the same reasons mentioned above, being more formal than required will hardly ever hurt you but being more informal than expected may.
  2. Be mindful not to plug in power indicators in your conversations. Mentioning them straight out can be a major turn off. Sometimes even subtle references can be perceived as boasting. And if you just cannot resist the urge, at least learn a tactful way of communicating it. 😉
  3. Your resume does not require any information that does not support your candidacy for the position you are applying for. I have seen religion, hometown, and birthdays mentioned on resumes I have screened while in the USA. That’s unnecessary and comes across as unprofessional or as a lack of understanding of how the system works.
  4. Do not assume that if a culture is informal, anything and everything goes. Because it doesn’t! There are situations that require being formal. For example, dressing up for a wedding, referring to an interviewer as Mr. or Ms., avoiding foul language at workplace.
  5. Do not undermine your own position when you perceive more power in the person you are dealing with. Confidence is highly valued in informal cultures. Lack of that will hurt you more than the lack of perceived power. That is not to say be fake or cocky. But just know that what you feel as a lack of power, most probably will not be noticed by the other person. So don’t sweat over it, be confident.
In Conclusion:

Power distance is an indicator that dramatically differentiates cultures. While all cultures appreciate some amount of formality as a way of showing respect, some cultures take it beyond that. Individuals influenced by such formal cultures attribute power based on various factors such as money, knowledge, higher position at a workplace, social status, age, and gender. Unlike informal cultures, people with different levels of power are expected to maintain a distance in formal cultures.

If you wish to be effective at building relationships and allies in a culture, know where a culture stands on the spectrum of being formal to informal, learn proper etiquette, and remember, when in doubt, err on the side of being more formal.

Today’s question:

Has it ever happened to you that you showed up at an event or in a situation too casual, only to discover that everybody else is behaving formal? Or the other way round? How did you handle it?

Do share in the comments below!


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This was the 4th article in the series of blogs about cultural differences – “Decode A Culture”. Here are the previously published articles from this series:

Decode A Culture – Task Oriented Vs. Relationship Oriented
Decode A Culture – Individualistic Vs. Collectivist
Decode A Culture – Perception of Time (Monochronic Vs. Polychronic)

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