Event Recap: Chat & Chowder with Michele Gelfand

Author: Samantha Miller, Investment Operations Analyst at State Street

Members of WorldBoston gathered last night for the final Chat and Chowder of the year, a monthly discussion on new books and how they could be applied in terms of international affairs. Boston’s current events enthusiasts came together for a warm cup of chowder and some drinks to listen to a lecture and question and answer section on the subject of cultural psychology. This talk was led by Michele Gelfand, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland on her new book Rule Makers Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. An expert in the field of cross-cultural psychology, Dr. Gelfand described how different cultures and subgroups, be they nations, states, or even social classes, could be categorized by how “tight” or “loose” they are-that is, how strictly groups adhere to social norms and how deviance from the norm is approached. Tight cultures tend to exhibit more security, less, crime, and place an emphasis on uniformity and self-control.  Deviation from the norm tends to be treated more harshly, be it social ostracization or legal punishment, than in looser cultures. Dr. Gelfand pointed to Japan, Singapore, and Germany as some examples of “tighter” countries, whereas more loose states, such as the US, Brazil, or Greece, tend to exhibit more openness, creativity, and tolerance for deviation. This phenomenon, Gelfand pointed out, could also be seen in different regions within nations and social classes, giving the example of how U.S. states could differ in tightness or looseness and how poorer or more working class people exhibited a tighter mindset than wealthier ones. She explained that a tighter mindset tends to come from existential threats, such as natural disasters, invasion, or high population density that makes adherence to strict rules valuable. Population density itself might not be an existential threat, but having so many people living in close quarters makes strict social norms that much more important to keep these groups on a similar page-for example, we might not understand why chewing gum is banned in Singapore, but a country with a large population density where gum litter was becoming such a nuisance that affected such a large number of people, the leadership saw no choice but to ban it outright. Groups that face a new existential threat have also been observed to become tighter and crave more rules and order when things start to feel too different or out of control. Understanding these differences, she explained, helps increase our cultural understanding and cultural literacy makes international negotiation that much easier-when we understand the culture and rational behind cultural norms, it is much easier to come to agreements and a clear understanding of the other parties’ motivations. She wrapped up her lecture by explaining that it is not necessarily better or worse to be tight or loose, but the most successful outcomes stem from maintaining a balance-social norms are important to be able to predict how to behave, but deviance can encourage creativity and new ways to approach challenges.

Following her lecture, the floor was opened for a question and answer section, in which the audience asked a series of questions regarding how these observed trends of tight and loose cultures could be applied in various international settings, such as how is Israel so loose and open while it is subject to constant external threats and how negotiating conflict resolution is such a challenge between tight and loose cultures when establishing mutual respect and trust. Dr. Gelfand and the audience also touched on Trump and how the populations that voted for him in large numbers tended to cite what they considered existential threats such as immigration or terrorism as the most important factors in their votes. To wrap up her lecture, Dr. Gelfand signed copies of her new book and answered additional last-minute questions the audience had. This event was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the intersections of cultural psychology and world affairs as well as mingle and network with fellow WorldBoston members and fellow Bostonians interested in international affairs. To learn more about Dr. Gelfand’s theories and how they are reflected in current events, her book is available for purchase here https://www.amazon.com/Rule-Makers-Breakers-Tight-Cultures/dp/1501152939