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

Interestingly, the countries that are listed here are not commonly clustered in the same category when it comes to other cultural psychological dimensions. This short list of Ukraine, Hungary, the Netherlands and the United States actually includes countries from three different and distinct cultural ‘clusters’ when it comes to value orientations. A large body of research within cross-cultural psychology examines the cultural and universal aspects of people’s value orientations around the world (e.g., Schwartz & Bilsky, 1987; Schwartz & Boehnke, 2004). To give one example, this approach holds that European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark form a 'Protestant European' value cluster, because part of the variation in the values that people in these countries hold is explained by the Protestant tradition that these countries share and that has shaped these societies to a significant extent (Inglehart & Welzel, 2010). Despite the fact that this cultural 'cluster' approach explains a good percentage of the variance in value orientations and is currently one of the dominant theories to explain cultural variation, it is less able to predict the degree to which people adhere to social norms (Gelfand et al., 2011).

Flick.com via Google Images (labeled for reuse) Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is known to wear a simple T-Shirt or sweater, be it to public events or a meeting with investors. The degree to which we adhere to social norms in our everyday lives as adults is instilled in us as children. Just like the degree to which parents socialize their children to be competitive, respectful towards older people, and express themselves, parents around the world differ in the degree to which they raise their children to be obedient, cautious, dutiful and able to self-monitor and self-regulate their behavior (Greenfield, Keller, Fuligni & Maynard, 2003; Keller et al., 2006). The cultural environments in which we grow up, thus, influence our psychological development. On this psychological level, people who grow up in more tight cultural contexts are, for example, more likely than people from looser environments to agree with statements such as “I choose my words with care”, “I am very careful to avoid making mistakes” and “I stick to the rules”. Moreover, if it is more common to adjust your own behavior to the expectations of others within a certain situation, as is the case for tighter cultures, it is functional for people to develop a high degree of self-control. If you are able to monitor and restrain your impulses so that they are in accordance with the social norms that govern the situation, you limit the likelihood of being criticized for inappropriate behavior by others. In contrast, if your society is characterized by primarily weak situations, you will have less of a need to develop such self-restraint and are thus likely to be lower in self-control more generally. This relationship between the societal strength of social norms and self-control was, for example, found for the degree to which people indicate to keep their emotions under control and to resist temptations, such as over-eating. Emerging research in the field of cultural neuroscience suggests that there might even be a genetic component to the development of greater societal tightness in the sense that a relationship has been found between genetic variation and social/cultural variables, including tightness (Mrazek, Chiao, Blizinsky, Lun, & Gelfand, 2013).

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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