Power distance, that is, our relationship with authority and power, is an intercultural aspect that can play a key role in website localization.

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

The theory of cultural dimensions was introduced by Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede in the 80s. These dimensions are often used as a reference to distinguish cultures on the basis of specific cultural aspects. They describe the values of the members of a particular culture, and how these values influence their behavior. Cultural values must be taken into account in the localization process. One value deals with individualism in society, the rest  with communication. In this article, we will focus on the cultural dimension called Power Distance.

Power Distance

Power distance, as defined by G. Hofstede, refers to the level of importance a society places on hierarchy and authority. In societies with low power distance, hierarchical relationships are less pronounced and autonomy and independent initiatives more highly valued. The United States, for instance, is seen as a low power distance society. In contrast, Asian cultures tend to have a high power distance index. This is the case in Japan, where a different level of language is used according to the addressed person.

Web Communication

Power distance can indeed impact your web communication strategy. For example, an American company could, in some cases, use informal language online to simulate proximity with the web users. However, on a Japanese website, you should always use a formal register and pay attention to honorary titles. Similarly, high power distance societies tend to value the presence of logos and official certifications that show expertise. A good example of this can be seen on the website of King Fahd University in Saudi Arabia, whose culture displays a high power distance.

King Fahd University banner

King Fahd University bannerKing Fahd University banners

Quantity of Information

Power distance can also influence the amount of information displayed on your website. In a high power distance culture, authority is more easily accepted. Logos and reputation will generally suffice  to convince web users of the value of your product and gain their trust. On the contrary, in a low power distance society, expertise is  less easily acquired and you must prove to your web users, via explanation, that you products and services are worth being considered. You will therefore need to provide substantial amounts of information so that your web users can form  their own judgments about your products.

The example below illustrates a localization strategy used by McDonald’s in the Nordic countries, which are typically low power distance cultures. The website of the Netherlands displays a large amount of information for each product. For instance, the caesar salad has a detailed description, along with its nutritional information, a warning about allergens, the quality of the product and a link for further information. In contrast, the Chinese McDonald’s website focuses rather on pictures and images, which is typical of high power distance societies.

Dutch McDonald's websitecaesar salad on the Dutch McDonald’s website