Guatemalan Value Dimensions: Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance

In this blog I will explore Guatemalan culture using the cultural value dimensions developed by Geert Hofstede as a means for comparing cultures on the basis of five cluster values: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, and long-term orientation. For our purposes today, I will be looking at just two clusters- uncertainty avoidance and power distance- and using these to compare Guatemalan cultural values with the values of the United States.

First, here is a chart comparing the US with Guatemala in terms of Hofstede’s value dimensions:

PDI represents power distance which describes how a society relates to inequalities in terms of power distribution and how such inequalities are handled among people in the country. A country with a high PDI rating, such as Guatemala, will likely view power as hierarchical and clearly defined. This is a clear contrast to the American belief that everyone deserves equal access to power and any inequalities require great justification.

Next we will look at UAI on the chart which is uncertainty avoidance. Uncertainty avoidance deals with the level of discomfort a culture feels in ambiguous or unclear situations. As described on Geert Hofstede’s website, “The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?”

Societies with a low uncertainty avoidance score, such as the United States,  fall closer to the “just let it happen” side of the spectrum. Such countries are more lax when tradition is broken and tolerant of unorthodox behavior.

Guatemalan culture, with one of the highest uncertainty avoidance scores in the world, finds ambiguity threatening and a cause for anxiety. Therefore, they use societal rules and rituals to avoid vagueness which, according again to Hofstede, materialize in emotional expression, social conservatism, and adherence to religion.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Market on steps of Santo Tomas Church.

Given this information about Guatemalan society in terms of power distance and uncertainty avoidance, an American hoping to make a positive impression on contacts in Guatemala can modify his or her communication to better suit the cultural values. Here are some ways I would modify my behavior to suit Guatemalan tastes:

In management I would need to be direct in giving orders and assignments to subordinates instead of just giving vague directions and asking for a lot of input. In the United States, this behavior would come across as a boss valuing the team’s contribution. In Guatemala, it may be taken as a sign of an incompetence.

Likewise, as an employee I should not expect my boss to seek my input or to treat me as a friend. Formality and rank are very important, and treating a subordinate as an equal could cause an authority figure to lose face.

In a related issue, the use of titles is very important in Guatemala. This extends beyond just the Mister, Misses, or Miss  equivalent titles most commonly used in the United States. To impress contacts in Guatemala, I would remember to use academic or professional titles as well. Some examples of these given by Word Travels are using Doctor, Professor, Ingeniero (engineer) and Abogado (lawyer.) Additionally, Moon Travel Guides suggests using dicenciado to address a holder of a bachelor’s degree

Dress is very important in Guatemala and is something often overlooked by visitors. Again, this is tied to social ranks (expressions of high power distance) and expectations (expressions of uncertainty avoidance.) According to Moon Travel Guides, Guatemala is “…a very class-conscious society, with good grooming, neat dress, and cleanliness expected. In many instances, the way you look is the way you’ll be treated.”

Therefore, a foreigner backpacking through Central America hoping to get the local experience may be negatively perceived as unkempt and low class in Guatemala and experience a level of distrust. To really get to know the Guatemalan people, I would make every effort to respect their social norms and dress appropriately.

As a manifestation of high uncertainty avoidance, Guatemalans expect others to follow certain societal rules such as showing restraint in anger and the previously mentioned attention to attire. Not following such rituals can result in a person losing confianza, or the trust and comfort of Guatemalan friends and business associates. A loss of confianza delivers quite a blow to anyone trying to build relationships in Guatemala. People will react more coolly towards such a person and will be very reluctant to trust them again.

Repairing and regaining confianza is a difficult task, so it is better to avoid losing it in the first place. By researching and understanding these cultural values and being sensitive to their manifestations, I will have a good idea of how to avoid such a blunder.


3 responses to “Guatemalan Value Dimensions: Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance

  1. Pingback: El Sombrerón: A Guatemalan Folk Legend | Broader Horizons·

  2. Pingback: Dress to Impress in Guatemala | Broader Horizons·

  3. Pingback: Interpersonal Workplace Conflict Resolution in Guatemala | Broader Horizons·

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