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

Despite the contribution that the theory of cultural tightness makes to our understanding of behavior across cultures, it also raises many questions. Although we now know that there is a significant relationship between the value that is placed in societies on norm-consistent behavior and the degree to which societies are governed by more strict political institutions, it is unclear what the direction of this relationship is exactly (Norenzayan, 2011). Do people create a more structured society because they have a preference for tightness? Or do people prefer tightness because that is the way in which their society is organized? Additionally, it would be meaningful to examine how the theory of cultural tightness relates to other social psychological theories. Recently, Van Kleef and colleagues (2011) as well as Belezza, Gino and Keinan (2014), for example, found that non-normative behavior can in fact have rather positive consequences. People who wear unconventional attire (sweatshirts or sneakers in a business meeting) or act inappropriately (putting their feet up on the table) are perceived as possessing higher social status and higher competence under certain conditions. Interestingly, both of these studies were conducted in countries that were identified as rather ‘loose’ by Gelfand and colleagues: the United States and the Netherlands. Would these effects be found in tighter societies as well? Moreover, what about the countries that form an exception to the general pattern of high population density and high levels of natural or territorial conflict as factors that predict a higher level of tightness? Two countries that score high on the ecological and historical indicators of threat and population density are actually found to rank in the top 5 of most ‘loose’ countries: Israel and the Netherlands (Gelfand et al., 2011). Are there unique elements to the histories of these countries that make them stand out? Or, does this perhaps mean that there is a turning point in the level of ‘optimal’ tightness that a society is willing to develop in order to assure survival? Another phenomenon that illustrates the potential need for societies to achieve a balance between tightness and looseness is the phase of ‘rumspringa’ among certain sects of Amish Baptist communities. During this time of an Amish adolescent’s life, the enforcement of the typically strict parental norms is somewhat relaxed, which allows adolescents to engage in rebellious behavior before they actively choose baptism and become a formal community member.

In conclusion, what we can take away from the theory of cultural tightness is that despite our individual preferences, our own actions are significantly affected by the greater context in which we function. If the population density in our country in the year 1500 can predict the likelihood with which we wait for a traffic light today, we might have only seen a glimpse of what the inclusion of such macro-contextual variables into psychological research can contribute to our understanding of human behavior.


I would like to thank Klaus Boehnke, Michele Gelfand and Katja Hanke for their support and proofreading of drafts of this article.  


Bellezza, S., Gino, F., & Keinan, A. (forthcoming). The red sneakers effect: Inferring status and competence from signals of nonconformity. Journal of Consumer Research. 

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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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