The Key to Unlocking Cultural Divides

Excerpt from Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World
14 August 2019


Cover for Rule Makers Rule Breakers, by Michele Gelfand


In 1994, a teenager from Dayton, Ohio, found himself at the centre of a major international controversy...

Michael Fay, then eighteen, was living with his mother and stepfather in Singapore and attending an international school when he was accused of theft and vandalism. Along with other foreign students, Fay pleaded guilty to participating in a ten-day spree of spray-painting and throwing eggs at eighteen cars. For the crimes, Fay was sentenced to a punishment that was routine in Singapore: four months in jail, a fine of 3,500 Singapore dollars, and six strokes of a cane to be delivered full-force by a prison officer.

Over in the United States, articles in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times expressed moral outrage and condemned what they saw as a barbaric punishment, which involved strapping the convicted into a bent-over position and striking the buttocks with a cane moving at over a hundred miles per hour. Meting out caning strokes for violent crimes can result in copious amounts of shed blood and flesh, fainting, and long-lasting physical and psychological scars. President Clinton and numerous U.S. senators stepped in, pressuring the Singaporean government to grant Fay clemency. But Singapore is proud of its low crime rate and orderliness, and its officials pushed back. They insisted that caning keeps crime rates down as compared with the disorder and chaos that plagued New York City, where “even police cars are not spared the acts of vandals.” Ultimately, the Singaporean government reduced Fay’s caning sentence from six lashes to four. But the incident caused a major intercultural rift and created lasting tensions between two countries that had long been allies. 

The Michael Fay incident broadcasted a fundamental cultural clash that pitted a nation with strict norms and punishments against one that is more lax and tolerant of deviant behavior. This contrasting attitude toward setting rules and following them is one of the most important ways that human groups have varied from prehistory to the modern era.

From the fine country to flightless birds

A tiny nation of about 5.6 million people, Singapore boasts exceptional discipline and order. In fact, it’s known as the “fine city” for its hefty fines, which are doled out for even seemingly minor offenses. If you spit on the street, you could be fined up to a thousand dollars. If you are caught importing gum into the country, you may face a fine of up to a hundred thousand dollars and/or jail time of up to two years. Drinking alcohol in public is banned from 10:30 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. and is outlawed altogether on weekends in many “Liquor Control Zones.” Anyone caught smuggling illicit drugs can receive the death penalty. Making too much noise in public, singing obscene songs, or distributing offensive photos can lead to either imprisonment, fines, or both. Even urination is subject to scrutiny. If you forget to flush a toilet in a public bathroom stall, you face a fine of up to a thousand dollars. And if, one drunken night, you’re tempted to pee in a lift, you should know that some elevators in Singapore are equipped with urine detection devices that, if activated, lock the doors until the authorities arrive to identify the shameless urinator.

Government rules also extend into people’s personal lives. Expect a fine if you’re spotted wandering around your house naked with the curtains open. Homosexual acts can get you imprisoned for two years. Online dissent, particularly against the government, can lead to incarceration, as it did for Amos Yee, a former actor who, at age sixteen, was sentenced to four weeks in prison after releasing a video in which he referred to the prime minister as “power-hungry and malicious.” The state might even try to play matchmaker. In 1984, the Singaporean government established the “Social Development Unit,” which arranges dates between citizens and educates them on what constitutes a good marriage. Surprisingly, Singapore’s tight culture isn’t a deterrent to its citizens’ love for their country. While not always agreeing with its policies, over 80 percent of the nation’s residents express support for the government. 

Now let’s take a plane ride over to New Zealand, a highly permissive culture that couldn’t be more different. In New Zealand, people can drive with open bottles of alcohol in their cars as long as they remain within the legal blood alcohol limit. New Zealand is also one of the most sexually open-minded societies in the world. Same-sex marriage is legal, and discrimination against gays and lesbians has been out-lawed since 1994. Women have the highest number of sexual partners in the world: an average of 20.4 during their lifetime (the global average is 7.3). Prostitution has long been decriminalized; according to the unique “New Zealand Model,” anyone over age eighteen can engage in it, complete with workplace protections and healthcare benefits. Pornography is legal and thriving. New Zealanders are frequent users of the website Pornhub, ranking in their per capita viewership behind only residents of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Ireland in 2015. Deviant behaviour is showcased in the media: Over one-third of popular music videos portray at least one incident of violence, whether it be fighting, gunshots, battles, suicides, murders, or bomb explosions, and at least one-fifth include examples of antisocial behaviour, from vandalism to littering, a stark contrast to Singapore, which places huge restrictions on these very behaviours.

“Kiwis,” as New Zealanders playfully call themselves (after the flight- less bird), tend to become acquainted very quickly, and they eschew formal titles. People are known to walk barefoot on city streets, in grocery stores, and in banks. Public dissent and protests are frequent. Even couch burnings have been a common sight in New Zealand’s universities. And in the 1970s, when a man dressed as a wizard and began traveling from city to city, engaging in various shenanigans from rain-dancing at rugby games to building a large nest on the roof of a library and even hatching himself from a human-sized egg at an art gallery, he wasn’t shunned as a social deviant. Instead, in 1990, New Zealand’s prime minister, Mike Moore, proclaimed him to be the nation’s official wizard, with the duty “to protect the Government, to bless new enterprises . . . cheer up the population, [and] attract tourists.”

Mapping the tight-loose spectrum

In any culture, social norms are the glue that binds groups together. Singapore and New Zealand, however, make it clear that the strength of this glue varies greatly. Singapore, with its many rules and strict punishments, is tight. New Zealand, with its lax rules and greater permissiveness, is loose.

In my travels around the world, I’ve observed these differences firsthand, from the hushed and virtually sterile train cars in Tokyo - in which you can hear a pin drop - to the very loud and disorderly trains in Manhattan in which people shout words that might make you cringe. But these are just personal observations. To gain a more objective view, I worked with colleagues from a wide range of countries, from Australia to Hong Kong, the Netherlands to South Korea, Mexico to Norway, Ukraine to Venezuela, and more, to implement one of the largest studies of cultural norms. I wanted to develop measures that could directly compare the strength of social norms across cultures, explore their evolutionary roots, and identify the pros and cons of norms being relatively strong or weak. While we initially focused on national differences, eventually we examined differences in tightness and looseness far and wide, across states, social classes, organizations, and communities.

Our sample of approximately seven thousand people, hailing from over thirty countries and five continents, spanned a wide array of occupations, genders, ages, religions, sects, and social classes. The survey was translated into over twenty languages, from Arabic to Estonian, Mandarin to Spanish, and Norwegian to Urdu. People were asked about their attitudes and worldviews, as well as how much freedom or constraint they had in many different social situations. Most important, they were asked to directly rate the overall strength of their country’s norms and punishments. Here are some of the questions we asked:

   ▶  Are there many social norms that people are supposed to abide by in this country?
   ▶  Are there very clear expectations for how people should act in most situations?
   ▶  If someone acts in an inappropriate way, will others strongly disapprove in this country?

   ▶  Do people in this country have the freedom to choose how they want to act in most situations?
   ▶  Do people in this country almost always comply with social norms?

The results, published in the journal Science in 2011 and covered by media outlets all over the globe, showed that people’s answers to our questions revealed an underlying pattern. In some countries, people agreed that social norms in their country were clear and pervasive, and often entailed strong punishments for people who didn’t follow them. That is, their countries were tight. People in other countries agreed that the norms in their country were less clear and fewer in number, and that people followed norms less often and were punished less for deviance. Their countries were loose. 
The results of this survey gave us a direct way of organising many cultures on the basis of their strength of norms. With the responses we received, we gave each of the thirty-three nations a tightness-looseness score. According to our findings, some of the tightest nations in our sample were Pakistan, Malaysia, India, Singapore, South Korea, Norway, Turkey, Japan, China, Portugal, and Germany (formerly East). The loosest nations were Spain, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, Venezuela, Brazil, the Netherlands, Israel, Hungary, Estonia, and the Ukraine. Tightness-looseness is a continuum, with extreme cases at either end and varying degrees in between. 
We also examined the data to see what it revealed about cultural regions. Tightness is highest in South and East Asian nations, followed by Middle Eastern nations and European countries of Nordic and Germanic origin. By contrast, Latin-European, English-speaking, and Latin American cultures are much less tight, with Eastern European and former Communist nations the loosest.

The data also provided insight into how much constraint or latitude people experience in over a dozen everyday social settings, including public parks, restaurants, libraries, banks, elevators, buses, movie theatres, classrooms, and parties. For each setting, respondents told us how much freedom they had to choose what to do, whether they had clear rules for appropriate behaviour, and whether they were required to monitor their own behaviour and “watch what they do.” They also told us how appropriate or inappropriate it would be to engage in various behaviours in these settings, such as arguing, cursing, singing, laughing, crying, listening to music, and eating.

The data clearly indicated that there are far fewer acceptable behaviours in tight cultures. Intriguingly, even though some situations, such as being in a job interview, a library, or a classroom, have a restricted range of behaviours in all cultures (how often have you seen someone sing in the library or dance at a job interview?), in loose cultures there’s still a wider range of behaviours allowed in these situations. As a professor, I can attest to the types of crazy behaviours you might see in an American classroom, such as wearing pyjamas, texting, listening to music on earphones, and eating; in the classes I’ve taught in Beijing, these behaviours are much less common. Likewise, although public parks, parties, and city sidewalks are universally less constrained in all cultures, these settings have more restrictions in tight ones. Figuratively speaking, in the tightest of cultures, people feel as though they’re in a library for a greater portion of their lives. But in the loosest of cultures, people feel as though they’re often at a park, with much more freedom to do as they wish.

Of course, nations tend to fall between these two extremes. And where they fall, they don’t necessarily stay. Though cultural psyches run deep, cultures can and do change on the continuum. Several forces, including the Machiavellian kind, can tip a nation’s tight- loose equilibrium quite dramatically. Moreover, just as a person might be generally extroverted most of the time but sometimes have introverted moments, most, if not all, nations have pockets that allow for the release of tightness or the tightening of looseness.

For example, even tight nations have select domains where anything goes, where citizens can let off normative steam. The looseness of these contexts tends to be carefully designated. Take Takeshita Street in Tokyo. Within the confines of this narrow pedestrian shopping street, Japan’s cultural demands for uniformity and order are completely suspended. On Takeshita Street, people stroll and preen in zany costumes, ranging from anime characters to sexy maids to punk musicians. Japanese youth and major celebrities from across the globe (including Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and K-pop super- star G-Dragon) flock here to take part in these eccentricities and purchase the unique clothing, accessories, and souvenirs that are for sale. Japanese culture also encourages its straitlaced businessmen to take a designated break from the intense pressures of their jobs to drink, sometimes to excess. Even in the tightest of societies, there are underground spaces for looseness. Amid heavy censorship, Iran’s capital, Tehran, has developed a vibrant artistic culture. Finding ways around the country’s strict rules regarding political, religious, and sexual material in plays, songs, novels, and films has developed into a creative art form itself. Theatre and musical groups put on shows for large crowds, whether in isolated fields, tunnels, or caves. And the Facebook page “My Stealthy Freedom” garnered more than one million likes for its photos of Iranian women removing their hijabs in public and enjoying other forbidden moments of independence.

Likewise, loose societies have designated domains of tightness. While they may seem random at first, they reflect values that are deeply important to citizens and therefore evolve to be regulated to ensure they don’t fade away. Take, for example, the American value of privacy, which is tightly regulated. We punish people who violate this norm, looking down on people who invade our personal space, take up too much of our time, and show up at our house unannounced. And in Israel, where people generally loathe regulations that constrain behaviour and celebrate nonconformists, strong norms have developed around couples having large families, and serving in the army for Israelis remains a tight commitment among all who can serve. Even in Australia, with their overall lax behavioural rules, people tightly guard their strong egalitarian values. So much so that they have a special put-down for anyone who shows off their wealth or status: “tall poppies.”

Despite the fact that all countries have domains that are tight and domains that are loose, countries differ in the overall degree to which they emphasise tightness or looseness. The tightness-looseness lens is a new way of viewing cultures on the global map. For example, there is no linear relationship between nations’ scores on tightness-looseness and their economic development. Singapore and Germany, both tight, enjoy significant economic success, but Pakistan and India, also tight, still struggle. The United States and Australia, both loose, are wealthy, but the Ukraine and Brazil, also loose, have comparatively lower gross domestic products. Tightness-looseness is also distinct from previous ways that scholars have compared cultures, such as whether they’re collectivist or individualist (collectivist cultures emphasize family ties; individualist cultures stress self-reliance). There are plenty of nations in each of the four quadrants: collectivist and tight (Japan and Singapore), collectivist and loose (Brazil and Spain), individualist and loose (the United States and New Zealand), and individualist and tight (Austria and Germany).

Just as our contemporary research on modern nations mapped divides between tight and loose cultures, it’s clear that this template dates back to ancient history. Our own analysis of data from the anthropological record offers historical evidence of this ancient cultural template. The Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS) provides information on 186 preindustrial societies from around the world. The societies in the data set are highly diverse, from contemporary hunter-gatherers (the Kung Bushmen) to early historic states (Aztecs). In their fieldwork, anthropologists meticulously rated the societies on various characteristics over the years; for example, the degree to which children were expected to have high levels of self-restraint and obedience, whether the community tried to control children’s behaviour, and whether children in these societies were severely punished for not obeying rules. We found that these hundreds of societies were scattered along the tightness-looseness spectrum. Cultures like the Inca in South America, the Goajiro in South America, and the Azande in Central Africa all scored high on tightness. The Tehuelche in South America, Kung Bushmen in Southwest Africa, and the Copper Inuit from Canada were loose.

Norms may change across the centuries, but their deep structure—tight or loose—is timeless. In RULE MAKERS, RULE BREAKERS: How tight and loose cultures wire our world, I illustrate how this distinction explains not only national differences, but also variation across states, social class, organizations, and communities. And across all of these diverse contexts, we can see the invisible factors that cause groups to be tight loose, and the consequence it confers to us all. The distinction also explains many puzzling changes around the world, from the rise of populism to the rise of ISIS...


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