Australia v USA: On Hierarchy

I’m so sorry! It’s been months since I’ve contributed to this blog. But here I am again. Since last I wrote I’ve been back to the US for a visit, seeing my mum in East Aurora, New York, as well as a friend in Oakland, California. We also did a nostalgia tour of Stockton, California, where my partner and I lived for 10 years prior to moving to Melbourne. It was lovely being in the US in the summer and seeing both old friends and places that used to be familiar.

Being back in the US also reinforced for me the curiosity that Australians and US-Americans have for each other. Being a citizen of both countries means that I get a lot of requests to compare the two places…so here goes. This starts my series on the similarities and, mostly, the interesting differences I can see between the two countries’ cultures.

I could have begun with any of a very wide range of cultural differences, from universal health care to gun control – Australia has them and most Australians approve while the USA does not and many US-Americans are ok with that. Rather than these more obvious cultural differences, I’ve chosen to begin with something a bit more invisible, something that seems to surprise people from both countries: their different orientations to hierarchy.

My first reply to this oft-asked request to compare the two countries is to say that Australia values equality far more than the USA does. This is certainly not to say that Australia is an equal society! It’s not as unequal as the USA, but men still out-earn women by a significant margin, Aboriginal Australian life expectancy is, on average, 10 years less than other Australians and there are super-rich Australians who have more capital than hundreds of their fellow citizens combined. But looking at Australian cultural values – those unconscious logic frameworks that contribute to our conscious belief systems, moral frameworks and ultimately our behaviour – it is very clear that people in the US value hierarchy far more than most Australians.

Here’s a workplace example. Let’s say an Australian manager needs her assistant to make some photocopies for her right away. Rather than saying: “Please copy these; I need them right away” the manager is obligated to say something like: “When you have time, could you get these copied? They are for the meeting at 10” (it is currently 9:55). Rather than just telling her assistant what to do, the manager has to acknowledge the assistant’s autonomy by saying, “When you have time.” And then rather than directing the assistant to perform the task right away, she must provide the context for when and why it must be done, so that the assistant knows that “When you have time” really means “Do it now.”

This act of diluting the appearance of hierarchy between the manager and her assistant happens in many Australian work relationships between unequals, despite the knowledge on both sides that the manager IS the senior person. Unfortunately for US-Americans (as well as most other people!) who move to Australia, this unwritten rule of workplace collegiality is difficult to see right away. US-Americans working in Australia are often considered by locals as being bossy, pushy and rude because they are seen as giving orders rather than working collegially. At the same time, US-Americans often experience Australians as indolent and disrespectful because they don’t ‘jump to’ according to US-American time frames. Often, because we are all speaking English, we fail to notice that we are speaking the language very differently: US-Americans tend to use direct communication styles in the workplace, which highlight who gets to give instructions, or even orders, and who must receive them, while Australians use indirect communication styles to mask the status differences between people who give instructions and the people who receive them.

One of the other places that this different experience of hierarchy is evident is in the service industries in both countries. I’m always taken aback when I return to the USA and step into a grocery story…staff members generally, from the manager to the person at the checkout, seem to want to help me. They actually ask if I’ve found everything I want…and if not, they scamper off to find the missing product! It’s not necessarily in their job description, but making sure that customers are served is everybody’s job in the US-American grocery store. Here in Australia, it used to annoy me to no end when I couldn’t find anybody to help me locate missing items. The most common response of a store clerk to being told that a product isn’t on the shelf is to shrug and move on; occasionally someone will apologise (usually people who were not born in Australia) but still make no effort to locate the product or answer questions about when it will be available. The exalted status of ‘customer’ in the USA, which garners respect, deference and service, is much rarer to find in Australia…perhaps only in the context of people working on commission – and even then you’ll only get the third on this list; respect and deference must be earned and will never come automatically due to your position, whether as manager or customer.

There are infinitely more examples of where this values distinction creates belief and behaviour differences in the two countries. Do you have an example???

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