BookMarks July 2019: "Rule Makers, Rule Breakers..."

book review bookmarks craig storti july 2019 michele gelfand rule breakers rule makers Jul 15, 2019

Other Voices: Your humble book review editor has happily—and completely—dominated this space for seven straight months. All you’ve gotten in this column so far is my taste, my opinions, and my voice. Even my wife would tell you that’s a bit much. In our inaugural column back in January we wrote: “We welcome suggestions of titles from our readers and would also be happy to welcome guest reviewers to this column from time to time.” And we meant it. So this month we are reaching out to remind readers that you are cordially invited to submit to this space. If you’d like to occupy this space yourself one month or you’d merely like to suggest a book for me to review, kindly email me: [email protected] to suggest a title.

Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, by Michele Gelfand, 2018, Scribner, 376 pages. Reviewed by Craig Storti

This is a terrific book. To be honest, I never expected I’d have any need for that word in this column. After all, how often do you come across a book that is a genuine game-changer? When was the last time someone—anyone—introduced a whole new concept to our field, a significant new framework for examining and interpreting behavior and for comparing behavior across cultures? I’m guessing here, but I would suggest that it was back in 1995 or so with the publication of Riding the Waves of Culture where Fons Trompenaars presented his universalism/particularism dichotomy. 

Gelfand’s dichotomy is between what she calls tight cultures and loose cultures. “Tight cultures,” she writes,

have strong social norms and little tolerance for deviance, while loose cultures have weak social norms and are highly permissive. The former are rule makers; the latter, rule breakers. In the United States, a relatively loose culture, a person can’t get far down the street without witnessing a slew of casual norm violations, from littering to jaywalking to dog waste. By contrast, in Singapore, where norm violations are rare, pavements are pristine, and jaywalkers are nowhere to be found. Or consider Brazil where clocks on city streets all read a different time and arriving late for business meetings is more the rule than the exception…. Meanwhile in Japan, a tight country, there’s a huge emphasis on punctuality—trains almost never arrive late. On the rare days that delays do occur, some train companies will hand out cards to passengers that they can submit to their bosses to excuse a tardy arrival at work.

Citing numerous studies and experiments, Gelfand goes on to construct an extremely impressive list of differences in values, behaviors, and expectations between tight and loose cultures, a list that any interculturalist will love. But not just love; these differences are often at the core of the cross-cultural misunderstandings and frustrations that it is our job to explain. Here is a very random sample of some of the characteristics of the two types of societies:


Formality, titles are important /  Informality, eschewing titles

Punishment for deviance from norms /  Live and let live

Less crime, fewer police / More crime, more police

Less debt (think Germany) / More debt (think Greece)

Conformity / Individualism

Not open to change / Open to change

More self-regulation / More personal freedom

More ethnocentric, our culture is better / Less ethnocentrism

Highly organized / More disorganized

More disciplined / More creative

Risk aversion / Risk takers

Autocratic government / Democratic government

Less open to people who are “different” / More acceptance of difference

Don’t challenge the status quo / Regularly challenge the status quo

As the two lists above suggest, Gelfand’s tight/loose framework overlaps here and there with other frameworks that we have in our field, but her point of departure puts many of those familiar differences in a new context, offering, in short, a new way of thinking about and ultimately accounting for cultural differences we may have thought we understood. 

Naturally, there are the expected trade-offs; both tight and loose cultures have their assets and their liabilities:

  • Loose cultures foster tolerance, creativity, and adaptability at the expense of social disorder, lack of coordination, and impulsivity.
  • Tight cultures foster conscientiousness, social order, and self-control at the expense of closed-mindedness, conventionality, and cultural inertia.

Gelfand’s chapter entitled “Disaster, Disease, and Diversity” looks for the origins of tightness and looseness in cultures, explaining that “groups that deal with many ecological and historical threats need to do everything they can to create order in the face of chaos.” Groups that were not threatened by natural or historical disruption did not have to develop mechanisms to defend themselves against them. Defend against what?

Moreover, as Gelfand explains, the tight/loose distinction is everywhere, not just at the level of national culture. Organizations are tight or loose, different social classes tend to be tight or loose, and individuals are as well. One of the more fascinating chapters in the book, “The War between America’s States,” is a brilliant analysis of the red-blue political divide in our country in terms of tightness and looseness. Gelfand also makes it clear that societies that are mostly tight or mostly loose permit or even encourage the opposite quality in certain contexts. Finally, in a chapter titled “Goldilocks Had It Right,” she makes a compelling case for moderation, that neither extreme tightness nor extreme looseness is conducive to a healthy society.

At the risk of redundancy, let me stress again that new paradigms like this don't come along very often, yet they are central to what we do in our profession. When one does come our way, we should all take note.

Michele Gelfand was a student of Harry Triandis who gave us the indispensable individualism/collectivism framework. Harry passed away a few weeks ago, but not before this book came out. How proud he must have been to have seen this book in print. And what a lovely tribute it is from Michele to her mentor.