Authority by Gizella Nyquist


In the second half of my life, during my residency in the US, I constantly wondered: why do I feel like an outsider both in this country and in Hungary? Why does it feel like that I am hovering between the two cultures?

In the past weeks I started understanding a lot more about myself, about this duality – or rather non-belonging – feeling, and even about my relationship with my American husband. He and I are avid audiobook listeners. The book we are immensely enjoying right now is entitled Customs of the World: Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are by David Livermore. Since we are listening to the book at the same time, we can have pretty deep conversations about our understanding of it, and we are even coming up with ideas about how to make our great relationship even better.

What is this book about? The author explains 10 cultural value orientations, with which you can describe any culture. I will only concentrate on the the first two now. I want to express my understanding and personal view of these values in the two countries, and I will be using personal examples. I am only one person, I (or my family) do not represent a whole culture. My goal with this and later posts is to give you an insight into me, my personality, and not to judge or criticize any culture or country. Are you ready to jump into the first two cultural value orientations? I’d like to encourage you to read the brief definitions of the values, because just the titles might not explain what the values are really about.

1. Identity – Individualism vs Collectivism

Individualism: Emphasis on individual goals and individual rights
Collectivism: Emphasis on group goals and personal relationships

2. Authority – Power Distance

Low Power Distance: Emphasis on equality; shared decision-making
High Power Distance: Emphasis on differences in status; superiors make decisions
How do these values help me with my self-discovery? I’m going to compare Hungary to the USA, from my personal view, not scientifically. Since I was growing up in the communist Hungary, and that’s where I moved from to the States, I need to start the comparison there.

1. I moved from a highly collectivistic country to a highly individualistic one. Being a collectivistic country really wasn’t a choice for us. Most of the group goals in Hungary were forced on us by the communist party, and I was raised in a society where nobody was advised to stand out. Our choices in clothing and everything else were very limited, so we pretty much looked and acted the same. Budapest, the capital city of Hungary with 2 million people, had only 3 “malls” (or “Big Department Stores” – their actual name), and many small stores. The quotation marks are there, because their “big” size was not larger than a smaller department store in the US.

A large number of people worked at collective farms, others at large companies, and the number of self-employed people (bakers, small grocery store vendors, etc.) were extremely small. This has changed a lot in the past 25 years, after the fall of the communism. Hungary is changing towards becoming an individualistic society, but on the individual rights scale it is still on the lower side. One thing that hasn’t changed much is the importance of families. We live many states apart from the American grandparents and other family members, but about 90% of my extended family lives in Budapest or on the outskirts of it. This is fairly typical, although more and more young people leave the country to live in other places.

How does this relate to me as an individual? Everything in my life sped up after the move. I had to get used to the idea that everybody will do whatever is best for him or her. If a new job or other kind of opportunity arises, people will pack up and move hundreds or thousand of miles away from their families and friends. We did the same when we decided to relocate from Colorado to California. It is not unheard of, that children only visit their parent here every 5th year or so, but of course this is not true to everyone. I became the black sheep in my family, when I moved to North America, but I still try to stay close to them with daily video/phone calls, and with a longer summer visit. This is the best I can do in my current situation.

2. When I left Hungary it was a kind of high power distance culture, and I have to say, that this hasn’t changed too much. (There are countries with much higher power distance, like North Korea, but Hungary still belongs to the higher part of the scale.) My new home, on the other hand, is a much lower power distance culture. Here, people have a voice, and they are part of the decision-making. The following example might not be the norm, but at my daughter’s school the parents were highly involved in the selection of the new principal. I feel a huge difference between how our principal runs the school, interacts with teachers, parents and children, compared to how a school principal acted during the time I lived in Hungary. You had to be afraid of principals, they had lots of power and authority, and they certainly used it. After a regularly scheduled principal visit to my class (I taught for many years) I was told that I used the word “good” too many times, and I smiled too much. I guess these made me show up as a less powerful person towards the students. I’m really glad that I was able to experience teaching in another culture as well, although I have to say, that here it could go to the other side of the scale easily. Parents will tell teachers how and what they should be teaching. It’s better here, but it’s certainly far from perfect. I cannot comment on how the “school principal power” works in Hungary now.

Lots of people thrive on having power in Hungary:

  • Certainly the government leaders, but I will not talk about politics (luckily, in the States it’s completely fine not to talk about politics, but it is hard to avoid the topic in Hungary)
  • Government officials – getting any kind of a paperwork done (passport, etc.) takes a lot of time, patience and sometimes money (tipping). My husband now understands why interacting with an official intimidated me, when I couldn’t fill out a question online about my US passport renewal. No need to say how nice and helpful the lady was at the office. It’s not always the case, but I am slowly getting used to the fact that in the US government (most) officials are here to help us.
  • Let’s jump to some “powerful” occupations that might surprise you more. To start with, let me mention the store clerks. Hungary is definitely not a “the costumer is always right” kind of a society. Mostly the opposite is true. You almost need to prove it that you are not in the store to steal, which I find very embarrassing. Once I was shopping with my mom, and my mother forgot to tell the cashier that she needed something before the clerk finalized the purchase. The cashier told my mother VERY loudly, that she should not have forgotten about this, and she should go back to the end of the long line to get what she needed. I was about to say something, because this whole situation was so embarrassing to both of us, but she quickly grabbed my hand (which meant not to do anything). We walked out from the store, and she said: “I will just get that item next time I come here. I know you wanted to defend me, but please understand, that I have to come to this store all the time. This is why I stopped you.”
  • At another time my daughter received exactly the same book from two people for her birthday. I went to the bookstore to have one exchanged for something different. It took me and my dad about 10 minutes of begging, yes, literally begging from them to finally say: “OK, find a book that is exactly the same price and we will make a HUGE exemption for you. But only this once!
  • My second to last example is current. My mother is in need of a surgery. She had to call a secretary who schedules the operations\. This phone call happened a week ago, at which point the secretary told my mom that she would call her back with the date. The callback still hasn’t happened. When I told my mom to give them another call, she informed me that you don’t do that. You wait, because they are very busy people and have to coordinate a lot of doctors for the surgery, and if you call back, they will be mad at you. She also said, that she would rather not have the surgery, but she will not call the doctor’s office again. In the past I tried to give my parents advice from my current point of view. I might have also called the doctor from here to see why my mother is not getting her appointment. But after listening to this book I understand, that I really cannot do much from here without making my parents’ situation worse, and my goal is the opposite. Of course, if I knew someone at the hospital personally, I could ask that person to do a favor for us.
  • One more huge difference between the countries is how much power the parents have over their children. In Hungary, children are expected to follow their parents’ directions “blindly”, and obey them all the time. If not, physical punishment is still acceptable by most. In the US children have a lot more freedom, individuality and independence, but from my point of view, generally speaking they have a bit too much. Physical punishment of children is forbidden and against the law here, and I do agree with it. I wish that solving problems peacefully could take footing in Hungary as well.

I’ve only given a few examples of the vast difference between my birth country and my current home country. I love them both. I am proud of my heritage, and I am working very hard on passing it on to my daughter. But understanding these huge differences between the way I was raised and the way I am “supposed to” operate in this new culture helps me deal with the non-belonging situation more clearly. Now, when I visit Hungary, I will try to blend in more into the everyday practices. At the same time, there are things, tones, etc. that I will not take from others. I do have personal rights, and unless using them hurts my family in any way, I will use them. In the US it’s the opposite problem. It needs to become more natural for me, that walking into a bank is just part of our life, and the people I will be dealing with will do ANYTHING in order to keep me as a costumer. I still remember the feeling of horror when I first walked into an American bank 23 years ago. It had nothing to do with the bank; it had everything to do with my view of the “power” of the (Hungarian) officials, bankers. One more thing: I will not feel as bad as I used to, when Americans tell me: “Oh, just loosen up, just forget about your past. This is a different world here.” Yes, it is different. But you cannot just forget about the past, the way you grew up. Especially not, if you still have as strong ties with that culture as I do. I’ve changed a lot while living here, and I finally understand more why I am NOT a Hungarian, and NOT an American, but rather a truly multicultural individual, who does not fit into either nationality category. I am a combination of two cultures.

              To be continued…