“You Don’t Talk When Elders are Talking”: Exploring Power Distance in Nigerian Society

You Don't Talk When Elders are Talking. Exploring Power Distance in Nigerian Society

I first learned about the concept of power distance when I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. According to Hofstede Insights, power distance is “the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally”. Social psychologist Geert Hofstede developed a way of measuring power distance and comparing them across different countries. This measurement is referred to as the power distance index (PDI). Societies with a high PDI generally accept that power is concentrated among those at the top of the social hierarchy, while societies with a low PDI feel that power should be more equally distributed.

The PDI of Nigeria is estimated to be 80. This is particularly high, when compared with other countries such as the USA with 40 and the UK with 35. The high power distance in Nigerian society means that those at the bottom of the social hierarchy generally accept that power is concentrated among the elite. This also has an impact on behaviours, as the less powerful are quite deferential to the more powerful.

In my analysis, the level of power one has in Nigeria is determined by at least three factors: wealth, age, and job title. If you’re wealthy, you automatically have power in Nigeria. Apart from the fact that you can use your wealth to get almost anything you want, people also give you a certain level of respect just because of your wealth. In the same way, older people are pretty much revered and respected by younger ones in Nigerian society, regardless of their wealth or job title. Similarly, the type of work that you do can automatically earn you power in Nigeria. If you are a senior political appointee, like the Special Assistant to a Governor, or the Chief of Staff to the President, people look at you with a certain level of respect, regardless of the amount of money you have. It works at lower levels too. If you work as a corporate staff in an organisation, people who work as cleaners, drivers, and security guards are likely to treat you with respect and even call you ‘Ma’ or ‘Sir’ whether or not you are older than them. Even as a student in the Nigerian Law School, the lady that sells bole to me always calls me ‘Aunty’ or ‘Ma’, even though she is much older than me. Needless to say, it makes me feel very uncomfortable.

I experienced the difference between power distance in Nigeria and in the UK when I first started working as a Casework Assistant during my university days in the UK. On my first day, my supervisor was going to make tea for herself and asked me if I wanted her to make any for me. I was surprised because this was a woman who was older than me, receiving a lot more income than me as a student, and directly superior to me at work. Based on Nigerian standards, the power distance was high, and I felt like if anything, I should have been the one to make tea for her. Long story short, I politely declined the offer because even though I would have actually liked tea, the Nigerian in me would not allow me let my boss make tea for me.

This story is just an illustration to show how the three factors of wealth, job title, and age might sometimes intersect and contribute to power distance. In the rest of this blog post, I will focus on age, but I might talk about some of the other factors in a future post.*

There is an old Nigerian proverb that says:

What an elder sees sitting down, a child cannot see it even if they climb the highest Iroko tree.

This proverb essentially shows why the elderly are so revered in Nigerian society. They are believed to be wiser than the younger ones, and should therefore be respected as such. If you walk past an elder and don’t say ‘Good morning’, you’re rude. You must refer to every elder as ‘Aunty’ and ‘Uncle’, ‘Ma’ and ‘Sir’, or if they’re really old, ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’.

Now, I don’t have a problem with us showing respect to older ones in this way. What I do have a problem with is that the high power distance in Nigeria has led to older people looking down on younger ones. A common saying is “you don’t talk when elders are talking”. The result is that within many families, the views and opinions of the younger ones do not count. In the public sector, young people are marginalised: less than 1% of those in elective offices in Nigeria are youth. In private employment, young people are also largely excluded: many employers in Nigeria will state clearly that you must have worked in that field for a fixed number of years before they will even consider your application. It’s a running joke that how would you ever gain any experience if all the employers require you to have experience in that field before hiring you?

Now, I’m not going to deny the older you get, the more experience you get, and this will likely make you more knowledgeable as you grow up. Age comes with wisdom, as they say. But as I’ve said before, what young people lack in experience, they have in innovation and fresh ideas. I’m more in favour of mutually beneficial learning relationships between young people and older ones. But for that to happen, the power distance has to be lowered.

Ultimately, our world is changing, and in this age of technology and innovation, young people have a whole lot to offer. Indeed, the pace of technological development has been sped up by COVID-19, which makes the inclusion of young people more important now than ever. The best response I’ve seen to that proverb that says what an elder sees sitting down, a child cannot see even if they climb the highest tree, is “we go use drones run am!” In other words, we will use drones to see what needs to be seen. This is another example of the potential that youth have in an age of technology and innovation. Maybe I am just being biased because I am young, but I genuinely think that if power is distributed more evenly between younger people and older people in Nigeria, everyone – even the older ones – would benefit from it.

Do you believe that there are benefits to the high power distance in Nigeria, or should we lower it (however difficult it might be to actually do this)? Let me know in the comment section!


*Other factors such as sex may also contribute to power distance, as a considerable number of people in Nigeria still hold the belief that women should be submissive to men. But that’s a whole story for another day.

More in this series on class inequality:


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8 thoughts on ““You Don’t Talk When Elders are Talking”: Exploring Power Distance in Nigerian Society

  1. Mm interesting piece.

    Yeah I feel like older people in Nigeria can generally come off as being very condescending- a lot of the time there’s that.

    Recently I realized that wearing traditional attires to events where I needed to have my opinions taken seriously, really helped.

    It’s a bit more difficult to get dismissed as a “young guy who knows nothing about life” when all of your dyed hair is under a Yoruba cap, and the oversized buba and sokoto you got from your father’s wardrobe makes you look like an old Baba yourself hah 😄

    About being called “Sir” or “Ma” by say a roadside seller, personally I don’t think too much about it. If someone calls me “Sir”, I reflect it back to them.

    They’re like: “Thank you Sir”

    And I’m like “Thank you Sir/Ma” and I go where I’m going. Like, it’s not just me who will bear the weight of all of these appellations, your own head must be heavy too a little

    “Drone” 😂😂😂😂😂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha that’s a useful tip about the traditional attire! And I love the idea of calling them “Sir” or “Ma” too – we’re in this together 😅 Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Quite insightful. We will all agree that countries with low PDI are more developed than those with higher values. That suggests that the ideas and potentials of both age groups are harnessed, two heads are better than one. If we will aspire to develop socioeconomically to the maximum, we need to target a reduction in our PDI.
    Kudos to the writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What an interesting read! My partner’s dad is Indian and grew up with a similar power distance in India and then Africa. I’ve heard many stories of his childhood and how wealth, age and education played a huge role in where you are placed in society. There are some things I don’t agree on when it comes to his culture, nor does he, but equally there are things I do agree on. Respecting elders is one. For example, as my father in law, I call him Uncle because I respect his culture & him greatly.
    I do feel some parts of society within any culture is outdated. But after reading your post, I do think Nigeria may be further behind than most when it comes to power distance.
    Thank you for sharing. I love learning more about different cultures. Great informative post.

    Liked by 1 person

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