cambodian culture

In the past few days we have been looking at ways Cambodian culture is different from other cultures – particularly Western – such as how different cultures perceive time and how they communicate. Today we will be looking at another issue one must address in order to be effective in his or her ministry in Cambodia – power distance.

Power distance is the extent to which people who are less powerful in society – whether youth, subordinate employees, lower class persons, etc. – will accept inequality in power and consider that inequality to be normal. According to power distance theory, there is inequality in power in every society, but the degree to which individuals within that society will tolerate it varies.77 There are two types of power distances: high-power distance and low-power distance.

In high-power distance countries and organizations, people don’t question the decisions of their leaders. Leader-follower relationships are not close and followers expect to have their jobs and responsibilities dictated to them. In some cases, they will not articulate disagreements with authority for fear of the consequences for stirring up conflict. High-power distance societies perceive a clear delineation between superiors and subordinates and between the young and the old, and they place high value on obedience, respect and allegiance to superiors.78 Cambodia is a country with a high-power distance culture where people expect leaders and followers to maintain their roles in the social structure, both in the workplace, but also in everyday life between elders and youth, parents and children, and other class, age, and societal distinctions.

Low-power distance countries, such as the United States, tend to have more decentralized hierarchies and they encourage individualism and experimentation.79 Low-power distance individuals are expected to and are more comfortable with voicing their opinions, even if it contradicts a supervisor’s word.80 Relationships outside of the workplace – in families and other community groups – also tend to be less formal. While elders and parents are given a certain degree of respect, individuals are often still expected to make their own decisions according to their own best interests.

Since Cambodia is a high-power distance culture, it’s important that you show proper respect to those in authority. It is also important for you to know that as a foreigner, you will be perceived as an honored guest, or person of authority yourself. Many Cambodians, including AIM staff, may become uncomfortable if you break out of a perceived hierarchical structure. For example: In an attempt to be kind, you decide to go into the kitchen of a ministry site and make a meal for the Cambodian cook. While your intention is to bless and honor him or her, the cook may become embarrassed or uncomfortable that the honored guest is serving the staff. It may even be perceived as insulting – that the cook’s service was not up to your standards or taste to the point that you had to prepare the food yourself.

high power distanceBecause you will be viewed as a person of authority by most Cambodians, you can use this position to bless the staff and those you are there to serve. One of the best ways to serve Cambodians is to publicly praise and give words of affirmation to those by whom you have been blessed. Your words will give them honor among their peers, followers and/or superiors, and will allow you to serve and encourage the staff while not making them uncomfortable because of power distance.

At the start of Jesus’ ministry, He went out to the desert to be baptized by John. As He “came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’ The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness.”81

God the Father affirmed Jesus publicly in His ministry. It was both a tangible reminder to Jesus as well as an encouragement, particularly with the trials He was to face immediately thereafter in the wilderness and in the years to come. Your words have the power to build up the Cambodian staff by giving them honor and by encouraging them. Remember that you are only there for a limited time, but it will be up to them to face the challenges of the days and years ahead to continuously love and show Jesus’ love to the Cambodian people.

Regardless of what you think or how you feel about the high-power distance culture, consider how you can operate within it to bless and to minister while you are in Cambodia. Spend time in prayer asking God to prepare you to recognize and take opportunities to bless others and bring glory to His name.

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77 Helen Spencer-Oatey, “Unequal Relationships in High and Low Power Distance Societies: A Comparative Study of Tutor-Student Role Relations in Britain and China,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 28 (3), 284-302. doi:
78 “Interpersonal Communication,” ELL Assessment for Linguistic Differences vs. Learning Disabilities, 2005, (accessed October 18, 2012).
79 Ibid.
80 Kirkman, B. L., et al. (2009). Individual power distance orientation and follower reactions to transformational leaders: A cross-level, cross cultural examination. Academy of Management Journal, 52 (4), 744-764.
81 Mark 1:10-12, ESV

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