On kissing in elevators and flirting in the office: A cross-cultural perspective on normative behavior.

Imagine you are walking around the city center. It is a warm summer evening and the street is deserted, no children or cars are around. The pedestrian light to cross the street is red. What do you do? Keep waiting for the light to turn green or just cross? And why? Because it is your own free choice?

If you decided to ignore the red light and cross the street, you just broke what is called a social norm. Social norms help us to effectively respond to social situations. Not only do they help coordinate road users to safely cross the street, but they also tell us what ‘appropriate’ behavior is and what is not in an elevator or in the office. Social norms help us to regulate our behavior in unclear or ambiguous situations and they exist in all societies around the world (Cialdini, 2001; Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004).

New research, however, suggests that the likelihood that you place a strong emphasis on adhering to social norms and keep waiting for the light to turn green is profoundly influenced by the population density in your home country and the amount of wars and natural disasters that your country has been exposed to in its recent past. A team of researchers, led by Michele Gelfand at the University of Maryland, recently found that there are systematic and predictable cultural differences with regard to the emphasis that is placed on norm adherence in 33 different societies around the world (Gelfand et al., 2011). Cultures that have experienced higher levels of threat and in which people live in more densely populated environments place stronger emphasis on adherence to social norms. The evolutionary explanation for this relationship is that in order for a society to defend itself against territorial threat, protect from resource scarcity and coordinate itself in the face of natural disasters, it has to enhance order and social coordination (Gelfand et al., 2011). The relative strength of social norms on individual behavior in which societies differ has been termed cultural 'tightness'. When norms are weaker, this is called 'looseness'.

Gelfand’s study included countries as diverse as Pakistan, Brazil, Germany, the United Kingdom, Singapore, and Japan. People in each country indicated their agreement with six statements referring to the perceived strength of social norms in their country. For example, “In this country, there are very clear expectations for how people should act in most situations.” or “People agree upon what behaviors are appropriate versus inappropriate in most situations in this country.” Additionally, they were asked to rate the appropriateness of 12 behaviors across 15 situations. For example, they indicated whether or not they found it appropriate to 'eat in a bank', 'talk in a library', and 'kiss in an elevator'. The kinds of situations that were included ranged from settings that have a high degree of ‘situational strength’ (i.e., that are relatively strong in all countries in the sense that only a limited number of behaviors is appropriate here in any country, such as the library, elevator, job interview and at a funeral) to situations that have a lower degree of situational strength (i.e., weak situations that allow a wider range of behavior, such as in a public park, your own bedroom and on the bus).

Interestingly, people within all countries agreed with each other to a great extent about these kinds of norms for appropriate versus inappropriate behavior across situations. In other words, people within each country generally seemed to agree whether or not it was appropriate to eat a sandwich while queuing in a bank. People across countries, however, differed significantly in the range of behaviors that they felt would be acceptable. Countries that only found a restricted number of behaviors to be appropriate were, for example, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore and Turkey. These countries scored higher on their degree of cultural tightness. Countries in which people allowed for a wider range of behaviors and thus perceived a weaker influence of social norms across situations included Ukraine, Hungary, the Netherlands and the United States.

From the editors

In this provocatively titled piece “On kissing in elevators and flirting in the office”, van Egmond talks about the different level of emphasis that countries place on obeying social norms and the possible outcomes of it. The background of this piece stems from a massive cross-country research led by Michelle Gelfand and colleagues. They found systematic differences across countries in their strictness of social norms, which were connected to variables such as population density and history of threats faced by the country. In particular, countries that experienced greater population density or greater threats (e.g., wars, natural disasters) showed greater cultural ‘tightness’ (strictness on obeying social norms). Conversely, countries with lower population density or faced few threats historically showed cultural ‘looseness’ (weaker emphasis on obeying social norms). According to the research team, a country’s need to defend itself from threats makes it essential to socially coordinate and enhance social order within the country; processes which are facilitated through social norms. It is possible to observe the tightness and looseness of social norms of countries through both micro-level phenomenon such as parenting methods, genetics, and macro-level phenomenon such as level of religiosity and severity of punishments in the justice system. van Egmond also speaks briefly about her own experience as a foreign student in Germany and the possible consequences when people of differing perspectives of social norms adherence meet. The relative difference between strictness of obeying social norms could be one potential source of unhappiness between the locals and the foreigners entering countries and cities that are cosmopolitan in nature.

As I read this article, several thoughts came to mind. What does the presence of this difference mean for countries or societies that are cosmopolitan or becoming cosmopolitan? At the macro-level, the knowledge of the strictness and looseness of social norms within the country’s society is definitely something useful for policymakers, especially when solving problems on social harmony and integration. Since the level of tightness or looseness is dependent on the history experienced by the country, does that mean that the tightness level is malleable over time and events? How do people within the country start to change their social norms emphasis level? Is the change a top-down or bottom-up process, or both?

At the individual level, do individuals explicitly and/or implicitly recognize the level of cultural tightness or looseness a society has? For example, if you have lived in a foreign country before, do you recognize that the foreign environment has a different tolerance level towards certain behaviors or responses? How has that affected your future choice in country destinations? Another area to think about would be the consequence (e.g., well-being) of a fit or misfit between the local cultural tightness and the foreigner’s cultural tightness. Generalizing the topic further, it is also possible that cultural tightness a person is accustomed to depends on the parenting methods and foci, creating possible sub-variations within a country. This piece by van Egmond is certainly thought provoking and provides plenty material for food for thought. Share your views, comments, or questions below!

Laysee Ong
Associate Editor

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