Power — who has it and how it’s expressed — is one of the more fascinating aspects of culture.
A couple years back, when I was facilitating a workshop in Vanuatu, I got a taste of what happens when two cultures, each with a different perspective on power, meet up.
The first order of the day was getting the group to come up with our “training norms” (there’s that word again).
“So, let’s talk about how we can best work together,” I said, “Who’d like to start?”
And that’s when it happened. Or, rather, that’s when nothing happened.
Nothing — as in complete and total silence.
No worries, I thought to myself, they just need time to warm up. I tried re-phrasing. “How about if we agree to turn off our cell phones? What do you say?”
Still no response.
These Boots Were Made for Walking
So, what do you do when you’ve got a roomful of people staring silently at you?
No, I didn’t walk out (not that I didn’t want to). Instead, I slowly walked the length of the room, from the easel where I’d planned to take notes, all the way to the other end of the room.
And back again.
It went on like this for a bit, with me pacing the length of the room, trying to look nonchalant and unruffled by the silence, while the group of Fijians, Tongans, Samoans and folks from Kiribati watched.
It was like the catwalk from hell.
Hail to the Chief
It was only later during the coffee break that I got the scoop from Fetu, one of the Samoans in the group.
“Great session,” he said, “Everybody’s talking about it.”
It was true. All around the break room, people were chatting and smiling and having a grand old time.
Which left me even more puzzled.
“Here’s the thing I can’t figure out,” I said, “Why didn’t anyone say anything before? I mean, everybody’s talking now.”
“Oh, that’s just our way. We prefer to talk one-to-one. Besides, no one was going to speak up with me in the room. I’m a chief after all.”
“Yes. I know you’re in charge of the program back home,” I said.
“No, I mean I’m the chief in our village. And in Samoa, you can’t say anything until the chief does.”
“Okay, but we’re at a conference in Vanuatu.”
“Right. But you see that guy over there? He’s in my tribe. And he also works for me.”
Keeping the Big Cheese Happy
So, that was it: While I was hell-bent on getting individuals to respond, the group was focused on something else entirely — making the boss look good. More to the point, nobody wanted to upstage the head honcho, in this case, their chief.
So they just kept quiet.
Culture. It’s pretty powerful, isn’t it?