Late one evening, during my travelling days, I found myself walking back to my hotel in Singapore, more or less sober. I came to a pedestrian crossing and as there was no traffic to be seen in either direction, I crossed the road.
Nothing remarkable about that, but I was struck by the (to me) totally baffling behaviour of the few Singaporeans who were also still out and at the same crossing. Uninfluenced by my behaviour, they dutifully waited for the green man to appear on the traffic light. I noticed they threw me disapproving looks; they probably regarded me as a moral degenerate.
Professor Michele Gelfand has come up with a way of comparing different cultures and societies. All cultures have norms and codes and rules: how we greet and interact with one another, how we dress, our attitudes to swear words, our table manners, our working patterns and religious rituals.
Norms are vital glue to keep people in a society together.
They are sometimes policed through legislation, other times just by a raised eyebrow and a “tut-tut”, and in extreme cases through shunning.
Many norms are so ingrained we’re hardly even conscious of them. Gelfand quotes the joke about two fish: one asks the other, “how’s the water?” The other replies: “What’s water?”
But cultures differ in how rule-bound they are. In some cultures, there is more lenience towards rule breakers than in others.
New Zealand is looser than Singapore. Italy is looser than Germany. Israel is looser than Malaysia. Stamford Hill is tighter than Muswell Hill.
Gelfand measures the looseness/tightness of a culture in many ways — experiments, studies and surveys. There are advantages to both looseness and tightness, she says. Tight societies tend to have lower crime rates and more self-control, mirroring the strong social control in these environments. Loose societies tend to do better on creativity and on tolerance towards minority groups.
What predicts whether a society will be loose or tight? The single best predictor, claims Gelfand, is whether a culture is in some sort of danger — perhaps because of the challenge of high population density, or from natural or ecological disasters, such as earthquakes, or threats from other people.
Tightness facilitates co-operation — vital to a community under siege. Gelfand says working-class communities are tighter than middle-class ones, precisely because they are under greater pressure.
Israel appears to be a counter-example — after all, it faces threats from its neighbours and yet on at least some measures — such as attitudes towards sexuality and public behaviour— it is loose. Gelfand argues that the diverse make-up of Israel’s population is the one explanation for its exceptionalism.
Michele Gelfand was raised in a middle-class household in Huntington, New York, in what she describes as a “moderately loose household”.
Her father was an engineer; his parents emigrated to the US from Ciechanowiec, a small town in eastern Poland where Jews made up more than half the population. Professor Gelfand’s grandmother (after whom she has named one of her daughters) founded a school there so that girls could receive the same economic opportunities as boys — a radical notion.
Initially, the young Michele planned to be a medical doctor, but it was a semester in London— a culture shock for a sheltered kid from Long Island — that changed her direction. She became interested in cultural differences and went off to work with the founder of cross-cultural psychology, Harry Triandis.
She argues in her book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World that the ideal culture of society has a Goldilocks balance— in which norms are neither too tight nor too loose.
Too tight and you squash tolerance and creativity. Too loose and anarchy reigns.
Jewish culture, she says, doesn’t do badly on the Goldilocks principle. “It has a lot of loose elements — in that we’re encouraged to think for ourselves, experiment, debate, and create — but it also has a lot of tight elements — it has mechanisms to unite a diverse set of people all around the diaspora to inspire a sense of history, group identity, and loyalty.”