Uit de interculturele hoek…
Hair, Gender and Trust

Vincent Merk

Back in 1980, Greece and the European Union (that was called the European Economic Community/EEC at that time) were conducting final talks that led to the admission of Greece to the EEC the year after. One of these talks took place in Athens in the Greek capital. The EEC-delegation headed by a top civil servant -a Danish woman- was welcomed at the airport by their Greek hosts. These were all older men with grey hair and a bit of a belly (what the Germans appropriately call Wohlstandsbauch). While trying to identify the head of the EEC-delegation, they were obviously looking for the older man, a peer like them in that group. When the Danish woman introduced herself as the head of the delegation, the Greek men were not amused, and this resulted in the Danish woman also showing negative feelings. Both parties felt insulted: the Danish woman for obviously not being viewed as a full business partner, and the Greek men for having to deal with a younger woman, who from their point of view could not really be competent nor reliable to finalize admission talks. Their faces expressed a feeling best described as ‘are-we-not-important-enough-as-the-10th-member-joining-the-EEC-that-they-are-sending-us-a-woman-as-the-head-of the-delegation’?

Trust was at stake. For people in ascriptive and hierarchical cultures like Greece, affiliation and experience are a basis for trust, so older grey-haired men (eminence grise types) create trust, whereas younger people and possibly female negotiators cannot be seen as fully reliable. By contrast, people in more egalitarian and achievement-oriented cultures, like Denmark (or within the EEC-institutions – or in NUT-institutions), see competence and expertise as the main factors to develop trust, regardless of age or gender. No doubt the Danish woman was an expert in EEC-matters and fully competent to finalize (technical) negotiations with the Greek officials. But not for the Greeks. Things have changed in Athens since then and this embarrassing scene would probably no longer occur.

Most NUT-institutions also have an egalitarian and achievement-oriented culture, where competence and expertise are high on the agenda, and age and gender are less relevant. However, there may be a difference between Dutch and Flemish universities. Indeed, as studies show Belgium as a whole is less universalistic and more hierarchical in values, norms and practices. I remember once a professor of a Flemish university talking about the bediende, a word unheard of in the Netherlands in an academic context.

Back to politics, does grey hair always inspire trust? In many situations it is still the norm. Maybe with one exception: The Brexit operation is being conducted by T. May, the British Prime minister – a grey-haired woman. Depending on which side you stand, she inspires trust or disgust.

Finally, what about the so-called stupid blondes? A. Merkel as the main opponent to T. May is blonde but certainly not stupid, and one can think of a few more similar smart blondes. As a matter of fact, the stupid blondes are mainly men nowadays, don’t you think?


Vincent Merk – v.merk (at) tue (dot) nl,
trainer intercultural communication at University of Technology, Eindhoven