The Language of Power Distance

TheOne of the core dimensions of culture defined by Hofstede is “power distance.” Cultures differ on how much attention people pay to hierarchy and rank. A high power distance culture, like Japan, is one where hierarchy is extremely important. A low power distance culture, like the United States, is more likely to have peer-type relationships between people of different power levels (boss and employee or parent and child).

Given my fascination with how language and thought shape each other, I was wondering whether the use of a formal “you” in a language related to whether a culture is high or low on the power distance dimension. English does not have a formal you, but languages like Spanish and German do.

[If you haven’t learned a language that features this quirk, formal you is a version of the second-person pronoun used for strangers, older or more powerful people, or anyone to whom you need to show respect and to whom it would be rude to act familiar. Transitioning from using the formal to the informal you is a relationship milestone in some cultures and has its own word in at least one, the Spanish tutear. Linguistically, the informal and formal versions of you are known as the T-V distinction, after the Latin tu/vos.]

Some quick research suggests that yes, the words used in a language to address other people are related to the power distance in the culture. East Asian cultures are often used as the typical example of a high power distance culture (as I did above, with Japan), and in fact, Japanese, Korean, and Chinese all use extensive systems of honorifics that go even beyond a formal you.

You can actually assess the power distance in a given culture using a tool called the Power Distance Index. Latin cultures, which speak Spanish, also tend to show a high degree of power distance. On the other hand, cultures with a low degree of power distance include several English-speaking countries (including the United States, New Zealand, and Ireland), and several of the Nordic countries (in whose languages use of the formal you has fallen out of favor in the last several centuries).

Germany, Austria, and Switzerland all have quite low power distance, despite the German language spoken in all or parts of those countries having a formal you (Sie). What’s going on there?

According to one reporter for The Economist‘s Johnson blog, the formal you is going out of style in Germany, fast. He writes,

Foreigners are well advised to begin with Sie, but they should not be surprised at how quickly Germans may now switch to du.

Whether a change in linguistic conventions is driving cultural norms around power distance, or a hierarchically flat culture is reshaping language*, it appears that German is evolving to reflect the low power distance observed among the people who speak it.

*Of course, since correlation does not mean causation, we can’t overlook the possibility that a third factor is driving both changes, or that they’re unrelated!