Interview with Michele Gelfand about her book Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World
1. Why did you write this book?
I wanted to write this book to introduce the concepts of tightness-looseness to a broad audience. My research team, involving people from psychology, anthropology, computer science, and neuroscience has been studying many cultures, from Sparta to Singapore, Athens to Alabama and Tech to the Military to understand how the strength of social norms evolves and its consequences for human groups. I wanted to make this research, which has been published primarily in scientific journals like Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, among others, accessible to a general audience. I dedicated the book to Dad who is an engineer, who always encouraged me to explore the world, and Harry Triandis, my mentor, who gave me the scientific tools to understand it!
2. What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from this book?
I hope that the tight versus loose distinction will ultimately change the way readers look at the world and themselves. It illuminates differences we see across nations, states, social classes, and households all through the same lens; it helps unlock clashes that we experience with our spouses, kids, friends, and co-workers on a daily basis; and it enables us to understand puzzling dynamics that we see happening around the world, from the rise of populism to the assent of ISIS. Most importantly, by understanding this hidden dimension of our lives, we can use it to better our relationships, organizations, and the world at large. Culture isn’t destiny. By tightening norms when we they are too loose, and loosening norms when they are too tight, we can build a better planet.
3. Name one or two books in our field that influenced you the most, that you think all interculturalists should be familiar with? Why?
Harry Triandis’ (1972) book The Analysis of Subjective Culture, it provides a very comprehensive theory about culture, and I was inspired by his ecological approach which informed my work on tightness-looseness.
Herodotus, The Histories, written around 440 BC. It’s really one of the first texts on cross-cultural psychology!
4. What is one of the most significant, most memorable cross-cultural experiences you have had?
When I was a junior in college, I ventured off to London for a semester, my first experience abroad. A sheltered kid from Long Island, I was the classic New Yorker who didn’t know life existed outside the Big Apple, as depicted in the famous New Yorker cartoon. Overwhelmed by the strange accents, the cars driving on the left side of the road, and the British jokes I didn’t quite understand, I experienced a quintessential case of culture shock. I remember phoning my father and telling him how strange it was that other members of my study-abroad group would just pick up and go to places like Paris, Amsterdam, and Scotland for the weekend. In his thick Brooklyn accent, my father responded, “Well, imagine that it’s like going from New Yawk to Pennsylvania!” That metaphor gave me so much comfort, that the very next day, I booked a low-budget tour to Egypt. It was just like going from New York to California, I reasoned (much to my father’s dismay!). That fortuitous phone call with my dad sparked a lifelong passion for exploring cultures around the globe, and caused me to pivot from a career in medicine to one in cross-cultural psychology.
5. If you could pass on only one insight/one lesson learned to others about crossing cultures, what would you say?
In a recent paper that we published in Psychological Science, entitled “A Tight Spot: How Personality Moderates the Impact of Social Norms on Sojourner Adjustment” we show that the match between one’s personality and the features of the culture one goes to is a key predictor of adjustment. This opens up a lot of interesting ways to think about how we can increase our adaptation to different cultures and be more strategic about recruitment and selection for international assignments!
6. This newsletter goes to nearly 1,000 readers, folks who are either in or interested in the field of intercultural communications. Is there anything else you’d like to say to these folks?
If the audience is interested, I did a Ted talk on my research and they can listen here:
I also have a place on my website for people to send in tight-loose stories to me and would love to hear from your readers! https://www.michelegelfand.com/