I was listening to an interesting podcast about how American culture is unique in the world, and how our cultural assumptions change our worldview. The podcast reviewed six dimensions of national culture which are further described by Dutch author Geert Hofstede here who also shows how different countries rate on each aspect. As someone who has lived abroad and travelled a lot, I have seen these differences, and I also observe that they impact how our “global” (but really Utah-centric) Church is perceived by members in other countries. The Church is often described by historians as a uniquely American Church, one that lauds America as a promised land, was founded here, and embodies American virtues while also exporting those values to converts worldwide.
There are ways the Church culture is simply the same as American culture, and also ways in which it differs from American culture. When it differs, though, my view is that the Church still respects and gives preference to American cultural values. Read on to find out why I think so and if you agree.
First, let’s start with the six dimensions:
Individualism vs. collectivism.
Individualism is the extent to which people feel independent, as opposed to being interdependent as members of larger wholes. Individualism does not mean egoism. It means that individual choices and decisions are expected. Collectivism does not mean closeness. It means that one “knows one’s place” in life, which is determined socially. With a metaphor from physics, people in an individualistic society are more like atoms flying around in a gas while those in collectivist societies are more like atoms fixed in a crystal.https://geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture/
This is the one where the US is the biggest outlier world-wide. The US is rated at 91/100 for individualism; Canada and Australia are also high. This was probably my biggest culture shock when I lived in Asia. In Asia, I discovered that teamwork was far more important than individual contribution, and firing anyone for performance, or even just holding them individually accountable, was nearly impossible. Results were typically only published for the team, and one time when there was a huge screw-up by someone, the site director simply accepted responsibility and resigned rather than identifying the individual responsible. I hated to lose her, but she saw this as her duty and did so unhesitatingly. Working in Asia for an American company made my role particularly challenging because my bosses were all American with American values, while my teams did not like competing with each other and found being singled out–even for positive rewards–to be embarrassing and carry social costs.
When the Occupy Wall Street protests were sweeping the globe, several team members talked about the Singapore movement having a hard time getting off the ground because nobody wanted to be the first to take a stand, and they didn’t want to get in trouble, so they needed to obtain permits to gather. In the meantime, I watched in fascinated horror while a US Occupy Wall Street protester take a dump on a police car on the news. Things that flourish in societies that focus on individualism: human rights, divorce, creativity, walking faster (!), and inequality. In a society that prizes individualism, we take credit for our successes individually. We believe we succeed because we worked harder, we got more education, we were more clever, we deserved it; people who didn’t succeed didn’t deserve success. These are our narratives. We also tend to be more competitive, wanting to stand out and be recognized as special among our peers. We don’t like participation trophies, and instead of team level recognition, we want an MVP.
The Church is less individualist than American culture is, on the whole, but it appears to allow for rogue libertarian actors (individualist values) more than social justice warriors (communitarian values). For example, consider Ammon Bundy who stood off against the government, or consider the indivduals in the Church who simply refuse to wear masks to Church. Even many local leaders have stated that people have “their agency” which is apparently more valuable than the safety of ward members as a whole. Even though the top Church leaders have encouraged members to be vaccinated and wear masks, some members have claimed that this means they are “fallen prophets,” and there has been plenty of allowance for these viewpoints. So while the Church wishes it could control individuals more, it seems to recognize that it cannot, but still has a much higher tolerance for deviation on the basis of individualism, even selfishness, than on the basis of social justice or advocating for others.
Power Distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations and institutions (like the family) accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. This dimension is thought to date from the advent of agriculture, and with it, of large-scale societies. Until that time, a person would know their group members and leaders personally. This is not possible where tens of thousands and more have to coordinate their lives. Without acceptance of leadership by powerful entities, none of today’s societies could run.https://geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture/
This refers to how much access we have to power in organizations. For example, in one of his books, Malcolm Gladwell talked about a Korean Air flight that crashed into a mountain because the power distance is high in Korean culture. The boss is the boss and cannot be questioned or criticized, or even given feedback like “Hey, we’re about to crash into a mountain!” Instead, the flight crew tried to give the pilot subtle, but increasingly anxious clues that they were heading into the wrong way, mentioning (in passive voice) that “many pilots find the control panel helpful” and other really vague cues that he needed to wake the hell up. The only reason this is known is because of the black box. The plane crashed into a mountain killing everyone aboard. Now that’s a high power distance. In a lot of American culture, we expect a lower power distance. Leaders have to at least pretend to be “accessible” or have an “open door policy” and be a “team player.” Another gauge of power distance is how easy or difficult it is for people to have access to those in power and have their concerns heard, understood, and addressed.
The same three countries mentioned above (Canada, US, Australia) all rate low on power distance, meaning we have an expectation that leaders will behave like team players, be approachable, take feedback, and not expect ring-kissing. Within the Church, that’s definitely not the case, at least not currently. As podcaster Peter Bleakley points out aptly in his Mormon Civil War podcast, our theology in the D&C which requires “common consent” to doctrine changes and new leaders being called and which also states that “unrighteous dominion,” a sin nearly all leaders succumb to, scuttles their authority, is revolutionary in its democratization of the Church, e.g. its reduction of power distance. Unfortunately, as he also points out, the Church has long been going down an authoritarian path that runs counter to these scriptures. Church leaders have deliberately made their word binding, expected not only obedience but policed thought and belief in ways unprecedented, and have recently updated the handbook to make a mere disagreement over policy (as opposed to the higher standard of seeking to tear down the Church) grounds for excommunication for apostasy. Current leaders are so hierarchical that they infamously share a box of chocolates based on seniority, forcing the least senior apostles to take whatever less desirable chocolates are left over (hope you like lemon cream, suckas). Not only are Church members discouraged from writing to their leaders, but if they do, their communications will be reverted to their local leaders, supremely awkward if its about them. This effectively closes off any potential for feedback from the group, driving those who want to give feedback to online forums like this one or more desperately (and effectively) the media.
Feminine vs. Masculine
Masculinity is the extent to which the use of force in endorsed socially. In a masculine society, men are supposed to be tough. Men are supposed to be from Mars, women from Venus. Winning is important for both genders. Quantity is important and big is beautiful. In a feminine society, the genders are emotionally closer. Competing is not so openly endorsed, and there is sympathy for the underdog. This is NOT about individuals, but about expected emotional gender roles. Masculine societies are much more openly gendered than feminine societies.https://geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture/
This one requires a little explaining. A “masculine” culture is a patriarchal culture, one that expects gender roles and that assumes male leadership and male voices to be heard. It’s also a culture that adopts some of the “masculine” traits such as show of strength or posturing, avoiding apologies and shows of emotion, and a push to the grind work culture. A more feminine culture is less stoic and values emotional expression, focuses on relationships, and doesn’t push strict conformity to gender roles. The US is more masculine than average on this one, but not over the top either. Scandinavian cultures are more feminine. Interestingly, in North America, Canada is less masculine than the US, and Mexico is more masculine. The hotter the climate, the hotter the state-sanctioned tempers and or the hotter the women!
In general, the Church probably aligns fairly closely with the US on this one, despite its utter dearth of female voices in policy and decision-making. Some Church leaders push for more masculinity (refusing to apologize or acknowledge fault, using excommunication as a weapon). Others are less comfortable with these approaches. They just don’t seem to be the ruling class right now.
Uncertainty avoidance deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. Uncertainty avoidance has nothing to do with risk avoidance, nor with following rules. It has to do with anxiety and distrust in the face of the unknown, and conversely, with a wish to have fixed habits and rituals, and to know the truth.https://geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture/
The US is actually pretty comfortable with uncertainty compared to others. Canada is slightly more anxious about uncertainty and Mexico is really avoidant of it. High uncertainty avoidance manifests in a lot of extra rules created to grease the wheels in social situations, rules of expected courtesy and dress norms that are pretty strictly expected for people to interact comfortably. For example, at an international work event many years ago, I and my US colleagues were baffled by the dress requirement of “smart casual.” We were pretty sure “business casual” meant dark jeans were OK with a button down shirt or blouse or sweater, although that also felt weird, having these specific rules around it, but what was “smart casual”?? We asked around, and most of our European colleagues knew what it meant (as I recall, no jeans, but not full on business dress either). The US in general is pretty casual. We wear casual clothes everywhere, even to the theater, and we call each other by first names and have no special requirements around greetings. We don’t have gift giving / receiving customs either which are very common when making new acquaintances in other countries.
As compared to the US in general, the Church’s culture is far less comfortable with uncertainty, mostly because the leaders are less comfortable with it. There are social expectations around dress at Church (far more than other Churches) and use of titles with others, how we pray, how we speak, which hand we use, what color shirt is worn, whether mistakes are allowed when reading the sacrament prayers, who can make decisions, etc.
This is one area, though, where refusing to play along probably doesn’t carry super-high penalties. For example, if you dress differently or call people by their first name or use the wrong hand to take the sacrament, people might think you are a little odd or don’t know any better, but they aren’t going to chase you out.
Short term vs. long term orientation
Long-term orientation deals with change. In a long-time-oriented culture, the basic notion about the world is that it is in flux, and preparing for the future is always needed. In a short-time-oriented culture, the world is essentially as it was created, so that the past provides a moral compass, and adhering to it is morally good. As you can imagine, this dimension predicts life philosophies, religiosity, and educational achievement.https://geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture/
Long term orientation means understanding what is happening, our decisions and actions in a very broad, long-term context. The highest country is Japan, which is exactly what I would have guessed. After the Fukushima disaster, in which a nuclear plant was leaking deadly radioactive material due to a tsunami, senior citizens volunteered to do the cleanup. We can’t even get people to take a vaccine to stop a deadly pandemic here in the US. Now that’s partly our individualism having a dark side, but it’s also not thinking long term about things. The senior citizens decided that their sacrifice of only a few years of life was the more logical choice to make for their families and community because they knew what not doing it would cause. They looked at the context. The US isn’t very good at understanding things in a long term context partly because we aren’t a long term country. We’ve only been around for a couple hundred years which is nothing compared to most countries, and that whole time we’ve been one of the most important world powers if not the top dog. We don’t think long term because we aren’t taught to think long term. What we are teaching as “American history” wouldn’t rate as history at all in many countries.
To me, it feels like the Church is very short-term oriented, driven by the fact that our leaders are all on death’s door. If they want to make their mark, they only have the short amount of time they possess the biggest of the big red chairs, but the changes made don’t seem to have a real trajectory to them, nor a real transformative power behind them. While the push to grow the Church’s wealth may be seen as a long term thought process, the fact is that the money is just sitting there, apparently waiting to be handed to the Savior when He returns (I think someone has seriously misunderstood the parable of the talents if so), there is no vision of what to do with these funds. There’s no long-term strategy. We enact the PoX in 2015 with seemingly little thought, to the point that it’s added to the handbook without any kind of rollout planned so a scramble is required to figure out all the problems with the change, then 3 years later, we un-enact the policy. And both times, it’s called a revelation! Since the second coming is deemed imminent by key decision makers, changes that are made are pretty short-sighted. It would seem that the Church is even more short-term than the US as a whole.
Indulgence vs. restraint
Indulgence is about the good things in life. In an indulgent culture it is good to be free. Doing what your impulses want you to do, is good. Friends are important and life makes sense. In a restrained culture, the feeling is that life is hard, and duty, not freedom, is the normal state of being.https://geerthofstede.com/culture-geert-hofstede-gert-jan-hofstede/6d-model-of-national-culture/
Mexico was the highest rated country for indulgence at 97/100! The US was still above average, but only a 68/100 for indulgence. Maybe one evidence of this is that there were several insurrectionists who didn’t even vote! They didn’t do the pain-in-the-butt duty part of keeping Trump in office, but they showed up for the “fun” part: protesting his loss as fraudulent by storming the capitol in costume and getting on TV!
The Church, though, seems to be increasingly restraint-focused. It wasn’t always so (e.g. youth conferences, road shows, linger longers), and our theology certainly has some fun potential that other Churches lack (e.g. eternal sex lives, getting our own planets to tinker with vs. playing a harp on a cloud while singing choral music). But it definitely feels that the current Church culture is focused on “doing hard things” and forcing sleep deprivation among kids and parents alike. We’ve traded youth conferences for Trek. We’ve gutted the artwork from the temples and the pageants from the Church culture. We’ve expanded our thought policing activities to an increased number of worthiness interviews, regulating beliefs and behaviors. Sermons have doubled down on duty, covenant path, restraint in marital sex lives to ensure procreation, doubling down on 1950s gender roles rather than freedom to be who we are, and guilting parents with threats of sad heaven without their loved ones. This one has changed a ton in my lifetime, and right now it feels that we are at a very high restraint point in our evolving culture, and getting higher.
Let’s see what you think.
- Do you see Church culture being the same as American culture or different? In what ways?
- Do you believe there is a bias toward American culture due to its familiarity?
- What changes have you seen in Church culture across these six dimensions in your lifetime?
- Have you experienced Church culture in different countries? Was it more American or more like the local culture?