Mr. Duncan, who told our class about how the Roman Empire swept across southern Europe. He recounted in hushed tones how the Romans built hierarchical social and political structures and heavily centralized systems for managing their vast empire. The boundaries between the different classes were strict and legally enforced. Members of different classes even dressed differently. Only the emperor was allowed to wear a purple toga, while senators could wear a white toga with a broad purple stripe along the edge, and equestrians, who ranked just below the senators, wore togas with a narrow purple stripe. The class of the person was therefore noticeable at first glimpse. So a first historical point is that the countries that fell under the influence of the Roman Empire (including Spain, Italy, and, to a lesser degree, France) tend to be more hierarchical than the rest of Western Europe. Although your Italian boss is unlikely to wear a purple toga, invisible and subtle remnants of these attitudes still remain today.
The second clue relates to a much later European empire, one that dominated the northern part of the continent to almost as great an extent as the Roman Empire dominated the south. When you think of the Vikings, you may think of hulking muscular men With long walrus mustaches and hats with horns, riding big ships and waging bloody wars. What you may not know is that the Vikings were surprisingly egalitarian. When settling in Iceland, they founded one of the world’s early democracies. The entire community was invited to the debating hall to thrash out the hot topics of the day, followed by a vote, with each person’s opinion carrying equal weight. Legend has it that, when the Prince of Franks sent an envoy from southern Europe to negotiate with the Vikings, the puzzled envoy returned confused and disheartened, complaining, ”I couldn’t figure out who to talk with. They said they were all the chiefs.”
The countries most influenced by the Vikings consistently rank as some of the most egalitarian and consensus-oriented cultures in the world today. So it is no surprise that, even today, when you walk into a meeting room in Copenhagen or Stockholm, it is often impossible to spot the boss.
Our third historical clue relates to the distance between the people and God in particular religions. Countries with Protestant cultures tend to fall further to the egalitarian side of the scale than those with a more Catholic tradition. One interpretation of this pattern is that the Protestant Reformation largely removed the traditional hierarchy from the church. In many strains of Protestantism, the individual speaks directly to God instead of speaking to God through the priest, the bishop, and the pope. Thus, it’s natural that societies in which Protestant religions predominate tend to be more egalitarian than those dominated by Catholicism.
The Culture Map - Erin Meyer