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

The tightness-looseness theory, like many other cross-cultural psychological theories, sees these kinds of ‘micro-level’ psychological preferences of people within cultures as embedded in a larger multi-level system. In these theories, the degree to which people’s individual psychological preferences are affected by more general characteristics of the societies and cultures that they live in, are incorporated into the models. Such characteristics range from macro-economic variables such as the wealth of a nation, or the discrepancy in incomes within a society (e.g., Tomes, 1986) to political variables such as whether the country is governed by an autocratic or democratic system. Other societal-level variables may include the level of religiosity within a country, the degree to which the media is controlled or the severity of punishments in the criminal justice system (e.g., the existence of the death penalty). Historical developments that shaped societies to their present day, such as the Protestant vs. Catholic traditions in Europe, are commonly found to have an influence on the way that contemporary people think, feel and act as well (Inglehart & Welzel, 2010; Van Hoorn & Maseland, 2013). The interesting thing about the theory of tightness-looseness is that it addresses all of these levels more explicitly than other theories, into an integrated framework (Gelfand, 2012). It describes the degree to which people adhere to social norms (tightness) as part of a multi-level system in which rather abstract societal variables such as population density, history of conflict, and resource scarcity (the macro-level) are related to the way that socio-political institutions (government, media, education, law, and religion) are organized within societies (the meso-level), to the structure of everyday situations that people engage in and even to people’s psychological adaptations to these environments (the micro-level). For example, it predicts the likelihood that they will restrain their impulse to cross the street when they want to go home quickly, the street is empty, but the traffic light is red.


These days, pedestrians standing at the sidewalk, waiting for the light to change in places as diverse as Bremen, Boston, or Buenos Aires are unlikely to have lived in this city their whole life. Instead, they could have traveled or migrated from a cultural environment that shaped the likelihood that they will wait for the light to change differently than for the locals of that particular city. My own relatively ‘loose’ Dutch way of navigating the streets of the slightly ‘tighter’ German city of Bremen by bike has, for example, resulted in more than just a few remarks from my fellow road users about how I ought to stick to the rules and turn on my light, use the correct lane or wait for the light to change on a deserted street. Such intercultural interactions are more and more likely to occur under the influence of globalization. People from around the world are in increasing contact with each other, either virtually or in real-life. One of the critical questions for future research is, therefore, how people from tight and loose cultures perceive each other and with what consequences. You might, for example, just be scared for the person in front of you who dares to cross the red light, but you might morally condemn somebody who dares to flirt in the workplace (also see Haidt, Koller & Dias, 1993 for cultural differences in moral judgments).  

The relative tightness or looseness in your own culture, thus, becomes a lens through which you evaluate others’ behavior. As the ancient Greek historian Herodotus already remarked (Holland, 2003), we all tend to be ethnocentric in the sense that we believe that our own culture is ‘better’ than others. Yet all cultural systems have strengths and weaknesses depending on the criterion of interest and one’s vantage point. Judging from a moral standpoint of looseness, tight cultures might, for example, be seen as too restricted, limiting individual freedom, and traditional. From the vantage point of tightness, loose cultures on the other hand are too permissive, chaotic and morally defunct in general.

An illustrative case in point is to think of the lenient Dutch drugs-policies, which can be condemned from a tightness perspective, and the application of capital punishment for drug trafficking in Indonesia, which is morally debatable from a looseness perspective on the other hand. Cross-cultural research that examines these vantage points therefore faces the task of doing justice to this cultural diversity, while at the same time not over-generalizing its findings across members of the cultural groups at study. The multi-level theory of tightness-looseness is a good example of one of the theories that contribute to the development of such an understanding.

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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