Power or Trust?

Growing up in Denmark, many of my formative experiences have differed from those of my American friends.

One difference is that my school now is more than 1,000 years old.  But what usually makes American friends drop their jaw, even more, is when I tell them how I regularly came home between 2 and 3 am after high school parties because I had to pay the guy from the brewery.

The 21-year drinking age restrictions don’t apply universally.

I was 17 years old and treasurer for one of the school’s two party-clubs that arranged events a couple of times a year for our co-students. Our club was the “alternative”: we would do line dancing or similar events. Our school’s other club got in a band or a DJ and the whole building was rocking from 8 pm till 1 am.

Regardless of who arranged the party, three prerequisites were necessary for success:

  1. A teacher who promised to be there the whole evening
  2. A guard with a couple of Dobermans to assure that nobody got in uninvited – particularly not from Hell’s Angles
  3. A big delivery of beer and soft drinks

Imagine this: the school and the brewery were totally OK with several hundred young people on the premises, thousands of dollars worth of beverages with no down payment, and only a teacher, a handful of 17–19-year-olds, and a couple of dogs with their human to control the mayhem.

We usually got a visit from the police during the evening to assure that we were safe.  They didn’t ascertain whether we were drunk.  Perhaps they sniffed for weed?  I never saw them harass anybody and nobody harassed them.  I assume they may have been around outside when the party ended to see if anybody were DUI, but as nobody can get a driver’s license in Denmark before they are 18 and as most teenagers can’t afford a car in one of the most highly taxed countries in the world, parents, older siblings, boyfriends, and bikes were the preferred resources for transportation.

Usually, everything went smoothly. Yes, there were times when somebody trashed a bathroom. And for sure, the proceeds had to fund a cleaning crew the next morning on top of the brew and the dogs.  Liability insurance?  Not that I recall.  A chipped sink?  I only heard of that once, and I think that went on the school’s tap.

Once the clock passed 1 am, the students left and we, the party organizers, moved the tables back where they belonged, counted the money, paid the dog guard, gathered empty bottles from in and out, and got them back in the proper cases.  An hour after the party finished, the truck showed up from the brewery, and brought back the wares that had not been sold and the empty bottles for recycling, the driver was paid the difference, and I could bike home in the wee hours of the morning with any profits in a locked money box.

True, this was a while back when the school that now has almost 3000 students was home to just around 600.  I am sure much has changed since. But they still square dance.

I particularly recall a party in my senior year.  This is how we heard the story after the weekend:

Two of my school friends lived far away from school so after the doors closed, they walked towards the train station with the intention to stay there for the rest of the night until the first morning train came around 5 am. This night/morning, they had picked up a newspaper from somewhere and, in their high-spirited post-party mood, found it entertaining to bang it on people’s windows as they passed through town on their way towards the station.

They had no reaction in most houses, but suddenly a window opened, and a gentleman put out his head to ask if he could help them.  He was wearing a uniform.  My friends had not registered that among the houses was the local police station and, naturally, somebody was awake there.  They were a bit befuddled but apologized and explained that they were just on their way to the train station.  The policeman, fully aware that the first train would not roll in for another couple of hours, said that that sounded like a cold and unpleasant way to spend the night.  He had a couple of empty cots in the back, why didn’t they come in?  This way my friends spend their night – unbooked – in the detention.  Come morning, they got coffee and breakfast and went on their way, probably a bit sheepish and a bit hung over, way.

This story has stayed with me because, to me, it showed how power can be used.  Power to do something can also be power to refrain from doing something.  This could have been the start of a rap sheet: Public disorder for sure.  My friends could have been frightened by that prospect and have tried to run, so we could have added resisting arrest to the sheet.  If there had been a will in that direction – from a quota to make this or that many arrests or from having a share in a privately owned prison system e.g. – more charges could probably have been brought, and what was otherwise a start of two productive careers might have looked much different.  Now, in contrast, when I met with the two gentlemen at a reunion some years back, both still had a clean sheet.

Why is it that some people on getting the least bit of power feel it must be used to degrade the person they now can dominate?  Is it a character trait?  Or is it a culture within a group that fosters one behavior over the other? 

Some companies rely on command and control and some use trust.  The latter generally have lower attrition rates and make more money.  If coercion doesn’t get anybody anywhere positive, why do people keep using it?

It seems an eternal enigma: from Frodo Baggins to George Washington, power is best given to those that don’t seek it.

Thank you to Melissa Hughes for “provoking” me to put this out.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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    • I think that my very different childhood and youth is what I bring to the American audience, Jeff.
      Sometimes one has to accept that other people behave this way to not doubt that it can be done. Until that, it is just unicorn and rainbow thinking.