Historical Take On Cultural Differences

Working in a global international company has its challenges. One of them is the confusing rough seas of cultural differences. You make certain assumptions and set your expectations based on your cultural background, and then you are surprised and confused when other people don’t make the same choices and don’t react the way you expected.

There are many different aspects that come into play here, but let me focus on one that can be traced far into the past. It can explain where some of these differences are coming from.

In Rule Makers, Rule Breakers Michele J. Gelfand talks about tight and loose cultures. In fact, it was an anthropologist Pertti Pelto who already in 1968, after study of 21 traditional cultures, coined the term tight and loose societies. Tight cultures have strong social norms and little room for deviating from them. Loose cultures are more permissive and have social norms that more loosely define what is and is not the correct behavior.

Social norms are relevant as they prevent anarchy and shape humanity into a very cooperative species. They help us survive and accomplish great deeds.

As Gelfand mentions, a classic example of differences between tight and loose cultures can be found looking at two rival city-states of Athens and Sparta. If you take a very simplified helicopter view, you can see two very different societies. One with permissive norms and a focus on science and arts, an example of a loose culture. The other with strict rules and a focus on personal endurance and military rule, an example of a tight culture.

Because of the environment

Historically, tight societies faced more threats than loose societies, being it foreign invaders, lack of food, or exposure to frequent natural disasters. These threats cause the development of more strict rules and norms in the name of survival.

Studies have shown that a temporary increase in external threats can tighten loose cultures. If people experience or perceive a threat, they are more likely to set and enforce more strict rules and social norms. However, eventually, the groups will return back to their ingrained style. When the threat is over, it is back to looseness.

This is an interesting fact to consider when looking at the world of politics over the last decade. In many countries, the rise of populists is accompanied by a rhetoric of threat to our way of living. Being it terrorists, immigrants, another nation, or members of a particular political party, the politicians use them as a perceived threat and thus rally the majority population to be willing to support rules and norms that not only prevent that particular perceived threat, but that may even impact the freedoms the majority enjoyed.

The reasoning is that if this rule prevents the external threat, we don’t care that it also impacts our way of living. The very thing we worry about being impacted. For example, politicians get people all worked up about immigrants that could change our way of living, and so we are willing to change our way of living to prevent it. Sort of weird circular logic, but it works. Unfortunately. The sad thing is that it is not essential for the threat to actually exists. It is enough if it exists in people’s heads. Perception is more important than reality. Well, one more win for fake news.

Clash of classes

Interestingly there can be variances of “tightness” even within the same culture based on socio-economic class. If you are a wealthy individual, you are more likely to be open to new ideas, cultures, and experiences and more likely to experiment and innovate. You know that if things go wrong, you still have a safety net of your wealth.

If you are coming from a poor background, there is a zero margin for error. If something goes wrong, you get sick or lose your job, you may very well end up on the street and starving. Therefore, you are more worried about anything new. You fight against change as it would increase the risk of something going wrong. You prefer strong, even totalitarian leaders who will ensure that clear rules are set and reinforced so you feel safe.

Rules are what helps you survive. You are also more likely to teach your children to go with the flow and not get out of line, which in turn leads to them being less likely to grow into risk-taking adults who can move up the class ladder.

The upper-class world is rather different, and the view of the rules is more of guidelines that are to be broken or at least stretched. If you are part of this group, you see rules as something that prevents you from achieving your real potential. You are more likely to vote for those who don’t enforce the rules too vigorously.

That is until society gets to some extreme like a revolution. Then everything turns upside down. Suddenly the lower levels in the society, who got to the point of breaking and not having anything to lose, don’t accept the strong social norms anymore. While the upper classes, seeing the threat to their way of life, call for more strict enforcement of the rules.

Perfect leader

When you map the tight-loose paradigm back to leadership, you can see that there is no perfect leader or a perfect leadership style. People in loose cultures prefer collaborative and permissive leaders who empower others. Those in tight cultures may prefer leaders who will rule with an iron fist. A collaborative leader who asks for the opinions of others and doesn’t show his or her own strong views will be seen as weak and won’t be followed. In a tight culture, you need to show confidence and independence to be recognized as a strong leader.

At the same time, too much tightness can inhibit the organization from being truly effective. Even military organizations that are traditionally very tight, with clearly defined rules and norms, need to ensure that soldiers on the battlefield show initiative when required to do so. You can’t just blindly follow orders if your boss is dead. Thus understanding the mission objective and seeing the big picture is vital to the team to keep fighting and achieve the goal even if the leader is incapacitated.

Many of us who were sent to a foreign country as ex-pats experienced this first hand. When I came to the Philippines in 2013 and started building the first teams, I was often faced with situations that I couldn’t figure out how to handle. I built teams before, usually in Europe, and some of the best practices I brought with me just didn’t work in the local context. I had to adapt, learn from the local leaders, and ultimately ended up with a leadership style that was a blend of the Filipino and Czech styles.

The worst thing any ex-pat manager can do when being parachuted into a new culture is to start enforcing the ways that worked for them at home. Especially when there is a glaring difference in tightness and looseness of the two cultures. Always try to understand first how things work and why. Getting a bit of historical background on the country you are in can not only help you have an intelligent conversation with your team but can set things in perspective.

To wrap it up

Yes, you can say that the tight-loose paradigm is a rather simplistic way to explain the differences in different cultures. And you are right. There is no one factor that you can turn to and understand the universe. However, it certainly is a factor to keep in mind when navigating today’s complicated world.

Nevertheless, the next time you are asked to work with people from another country and another cultural background, go slow, listen, ask questions, make no assumptions, and try hard to understand. You may realize that your ways would lead to disaster. Having the humility and mental flexibility to see the world through the eyes of others and adjusting your behavior accordingly is the skill you want to cultivate.


What are your thoughts? Do you believe that tight and loose cultures concept has its merits? Have you seen this in reality? How do you handle teams composed of people from both tight and loose cultures?

Photo: Alexas_Fotos / Pixabay.com

Follow me on Twitter: @GeekyLeader



Categories: Life

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