Culture & Society

What Is Normal? How Culture Affects Communication Styles

In this episode, Michele Gelfand explains why social norms are the glue that keeps cultures together.

September 13, 2022

Why do we drive on only one side of the road? Why don’t we sing in libraries? Why wear a swimsuit?

For Professor Michele Gelfand, it all comes down to culture. As a cross-cultural psychologist, Gelfand is fascinated by social environments and their effects on human behavior, particularly, how strictly people adhere to social norms.

In this episode of Think Fast, Talk Smart, Gelfand joins host and lecturer of strategic communications Matt Abrahams to explain why some cultures are “tight” and “have strict social norms,” while others are “loose,” with “more permissibility of behavior.”

Think Fast, Talk Smart is a podcast produced by Stanford Graduate School of Business. Each episode provides concrete, easy-to-implement tools and techniques to help you hone and enhance your communication skills.

Full Transcript

Matt Abrahams: We’ve all heard about the importance of IQ in our interactions, and some of us have even heard about EQ, emotional intelligence, in our interactions. But have you heard of CQ: cultural intelligence? Today I am excited to explore how culture influences our communication. I’m Matt Abrahams, and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast.

I am really excited to chat with Michele Gelfand. Michele is the John H. Scully Professor in Cross Cultural Management and a professor of organizational behavior. She uses field, experimental, computational, and neuroscience methods to understand cross-cultural organizational behavior, negotiation, conflict, and diversity. Michele is the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World. Welcome, Michele.

Michele Gelfand: It’s great to be here, Matt.

Matt Abrahams: Thanks for being here, and a big congratulations to you on your induction to the National Academies of Science. That’s so exciting.

Michele Gelfand: So thank you.

Matt Abrahams: You are known for many things, but perhaps the idea most associated with you and your work is the idea of tight and loose cultures. I’d love to have you define what you mean by those two concepts and perhaps explain how the Muppets fit into all of this.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, so I’m a cross-cultural psychologist. I study culture, which is really a puzzle. It’s omnipresent. It’s all around us, and affects us from the moment we wake up until the time we go to sleep. But we take it for granted. It’s like the two fish swimming around, and they pass by another fish who says: “Hey, boys. How’s the water?” And they swim past. Then they say: “What’s water?”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Michele Gelfand: And that story indicates something really profound, which is that sometimes the most important realities around us are the most difficult to appreciate or recognize. For fish, that’s water; but for humans, that’s culture. So I try to understand the deeper cultural codes that drive our behavior. And I focus on social norms. These are basically unwritten rules for behavior that sometimes get more formalized in terms of codes and laws. And in particular, how strictly people follow social norms has been my focus.

And you know what? The idea is that all cultures have social norms. We drive on one side of the street versus both sides of the street. We don’t steal people’s food in restaurants or start singing in libraries. Most of us don’t do that because these are things that help us coordinate our behavior. They’re the glue that keeps us together.

But some cultures have strict social norms. We call them “tight cultures.” Other cultures have looser social norms, where there’s more permissibility of behavior. And so we try to really quantify how tight or loose are cultures around the world. Not just nations, but then we can zoom in and look at states in the U.S. or provinces in China. We can look even beyond that in terms of organizations, how strict or permissive, tight or loose, they are. We can even look into our own mindsets. We can classify people in terms of whether they’re an Order Muppet, like Bert, or whether they’re a Chaos Muppet, like Ernie or like Cookie Monster.

And the idea is that we all are socialized to have certain mindsets, whether tight or loose, and it’s important to understand why these codes develop. Why do they evolve in the first place? What tradeoff do they provide for people, for organizations, for nations? That’s what, really, we try to do in cross-cultural psychology is try to understand these cultural codes, quantify them, study them all around the world.

Matt Abrahams: It’s totally fascinating. I’m channeling my inner Elmo as I’m talking to you. We had Phil Zimbardo on a while ago. Phil was a mentor of mine when I was a student here at Stanford. We talked about norms and the influence of how they can impact our activities and actions, and it sounds like you’re diving very deep into that. I’m curious: Is there an advantage to having a tight or loose culture? Is one better than the other?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, this is such a great question. We published a paper some years ago in Science where we asked people all around the world about the level of norms strength in their countries. Places like Singapore and Japan, China, Austria, Germany, they tended to lean tighter. Even though all tight cultures have loose elements and all loose cultures have tight elements, they veer tight. Cultures like Brazil, Greece, the Netherlands, the U.S., they tended to veer looser — again, even though all cultures have both elements.

And what we found is, in general, tight cultures have a lot of order. They have less crime. They have more monitoring in terms of police per capita, security cameras. They also have more synchrony. So they have people who are wearing more similar clothing or driving more similar cars, more uniformity. Even city clocks in streets have more synchrony in tight cultures.

Matt Abrahams: Wow.

Michele Gelfand: We actually measured this. We looked at: How aligned are clocks in city streets? And actually, tight cultures, they’re off by milliseconds. And in loose cultures, you’re not totally sure what time it is. The clocks are not synchronized.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Michele Gelfand: And also, tight cultures have a lot of order when it comes to self-control. So if you live in a culture where there is a lot of social order and uniformity, you learn to manage your impulses from a very early age. That has its downstream effects on things like lower debt in tight cultures, lower obesity, and lower alcoholism and drug abuse.

So tight cultures corner the market on order, and loose cultures struggle with order. They have more crime, less monitoring, less synchrony — like the “clock” example — and they have a host of self-regulation problems. Even, by the way, animals, like pets, tend to be fatter in loose cultures.

But loose cultures corner the market on openness. They have more tolerance of people from different races, religions, creeds. We actually even sent out our research assistants to do a field experiment outside in their home countries, where I dressed them up with either facial warts that I bought for them on the internet —

Matt Abrahams: Oh, okay. Like Halloween makeup?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. We put lots of warts on their faces. In another condition, they were wearing tattoos and nose rings and purple hair. And then in a third condition, they were just wearing their normal face. And we simply had them go ask for directions in city streets or in stores in their home countries, and what we found was fascinating on this “openness” issue.

We found that when people were just wearing their normal face, there were no cultural differences in helping behavior; but when they were wearing these strange things on their face, or tattoos and nose rings, they got far more help in looser cultures. So that’s an indication of tolerance out there in the wild.

We also know that loose cultures corner the market on openness in terms of creativity, idea generation. There’s been large-scale studies of creativity where people from loose cultures are more likely to enter those contests and more likely to win. And loose cultures tend to be more adaptable. When new norms enter the population, they tend to take off more quickly.

So loose cultures corner the market on openness, and tight cultures struggle with openness. So in that sense, it’s a tradeoff. We can harness the power of social norms to shift in either direction. I think that’s really an important part of the book and our research: How do you start pivoting? When you get too tight or too loose, how do you try to maximize order and openness?

Matt Abrahams: So the dialectic of order versus openness I find really fascinating, and I’m curious: For an individual, is just recognizing it the first step to being able to adjust and adapt? I live in a loose culture, and I look at my own household, where I might have a more loose attitude than, let’s say, my wife. Are those things that can be changed over time?

Michele Gelfand: The first thing I would say is it’s important to understand one’s own self. And for that, you can go to my website at and take the tight/loose mindset quiz. This is actually based on data that we published in Science, and you can see where you score on this continuum. And I want to emphasize we can all kind of switch codes quite easily. When you go to a library, your tight mindset kind of kicks in. You kind of know: “This is a tight context. I can’t start doing all sorts of weird things.”

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Michele Gelfand: Or in the classroom, for the most part. And then when we’re at a party or in public parks, we kind of become looser. So we can… It’s amazing, actually, how much we can really rapidly switch codes. With that said, we all have our own default on the tight/loose continuum based on our own cultures, our ethnicity, our race, gender, our occupations and so forth.

Matt Abrahams: Michele, before we go on, I’d love to understand a little bit about the evolution of tight and loose cultures. It has something to do with threat, doesn’t it?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. So what we wanted to understand is: Why do tight and loose cultures evolve the way they do? And what we found was really interesting. They didn’t vary in terms of their wealth, like GDP. So there’s loose cultures that are poor and rich, and tight cultures that are poor and rich. They’re not different in terms of religion or location. But what we did find is that one reliable predictor of tight/loose is the degree to which groups or individuals or nations have experienced a lot of chronic threat.

Threat at the national level could be either from Mother Nature — think chronic national disasters or famine — but it can also be based on human threats. Think about how many potential times your nation has been invaded over the last hundred years. We selected these nations based on how much they varied on chronic threat as far back as 1500.

Cultures that have a lot of threat need stricter rules to coordinate in order to survive, and loose cultures that have experienced less threat can afford to be more permissive. Tight cultures across the board, not all but many, had much more threat. And we validated this at the state level in the U.S. Tight states — in the South, the Midwest — tend to have more threats, as well.

We can also see this with an organizational context. Organizations that lean tight are in contexts where there’s a lot of safety issues, coordination problems. I want to say again not all tight cultures have threat, and not all loose cultures are on Easy Street; but it’s really an important principle that threat does seem to cause the evolution of tightness.

Matt Abrahams: So threat really underlies a lot of that, and it might be interesting to analyze a lot of what we see in terms of the impact of threat and the history of threat within organizations, relationships, et cetera.

Now, those who listen in know that language is something I’ve always found very fascinating. I love the fact that you have looked into language, as well. And in fact, you publish a threat dictionary. Can you tell us a little bit more abou… I’ve never seen a threat dictionary before.

Michele Gelfand: That’s right. So this is a paper we just published recently. The idea is that we’re constantly being bombarded by threatening information, whether it’s on social media, in the newspaper, radio, newscasts. Hopefully not this podcast —

Matt Abrahams: Hopefully not.

Michele Gelfand: — except we’re talking a lot about threat. It’s something that is really affecting our brain circuitry, and we wanted to develop methods to track it in real time. So we partnered with some computational linguistic scholars along with psychologists, like myself, and developed a new threat dictionary.

It’s developed based on Big Data. We seeded out words into different platforms, like Twitter, Wikipedia, Common Crawl. And we chose words that were coalescing around each other, that were clustering together — things like “attack” and “crisis,” “destroy,” “fear,” “injury,” “outbreak,” “unrest.” These kinds of words are really tapping into the psychology of threat.

And what we wanted to do is then track threat over time, over the last hundred years, with newspaper — so all the newspapers published in the U.S. We tracked threat, whether it’s changing over time. And we found, for example, that during times of threat there were far more ethno-centric types of attitudes on other surveys against immigrants. There was more rallying around the flag, around current U.S. presidents — more conservative shifts during threat.

We found that norms tended to become tighter during times of threat in general. People became more group-y, more collectivistic. We also found during times of threat that economic activity took a big toll in terms of the stock market. It’s just a new dictionary that can help us track threat and understand its influence.

One other thing we found is that threat talk is very contagious. And so when you add a threat word or two to a tweet, it really increases its retweeting power. And this does suggest that — you know, when we have these tools, we can start tracking in our own lives: How much threat am I being exposed to? What other things does it predict, whether it’s [how… ] You always talk about threat. How does it affect how other competitors see the company, or customers? It could be used to track online radicalization.

A lot of times, people are using threat to tighten people. Elected leaders use threat and manufacture threat, fake threat, that tightens people unnecessarily. So there’s ways that we can now make this very powerful psychology more visible and more tangible and measurable in real time.

Matt Abrahams: And it can also help all of us reflect on the language that we use and maybe become more personally responsible for the way in which we use certain words.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, that’s right. And on my website, the threat dictionary is publicly available. You can download it. You can have your own feed. What kind of threat talk do you see in your feed? It will give kind of a breakdown of the words and so forth.

Matt Abrahams: Huh. So this might be one of those things that can help break those thought bubbles that people talk about. If we can see literally the types of language that we’re receiving called out, it would be really interesting.

Michele Gelfand: Exactly.

Matt Abrahams: I find that work fascinating — the notion of a threat dictionary. It used to be my teachers would threaten that I’d have to go read the dictionary if I did something wrong. Now there’s a threat dictionary I’m excited to read. So thank you.

I know, Michele, that you are very interested and passionate about justice and diversity, equity and inclusion. What insights do you have, based on your research and other things that you’ve done, to help us better understand the issues and challenges and perhaps do better in this space?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. The most recent work that we’re doing on this topic is really around tight/loose. The idea is that research suggests that women and minorities tend to live in tighter worlds. So that suggests that they are being evaluated more harshly or more strictly with consequences for deviance that majority, high-powered groups don’t have.

And we can see that. We’ve done some studies, for example, in banks, where we ask managers to evaluate deviant behavior by just switching the name: Jamal or Leticia or Brad or Lauren. And these are workplace deviant types of questions around coming to work late or being on the phone and so forth, other things, or even more major deviance.

And it was remarkable to see that there was no in-group effect. It wasn’t that women and minorities were evaluating each other more leniently for these behaviors. They didn’t actually differentiate who was doing the paper. But white majorities tended to let other majorities off the hook, and they were much more harsh on women and minorities.

So that suggests that we need to start thinking about the worlds we live in when it comes to accountability. We’re starting to do more work on that in everyday life through some experiential sampling — daily diary types of studies — to understand the constraints that women and minorities and people from stigmatized identities have to experience.

Matt Abrahams: It seems to me that people who are stigmatized and coming from a represented minority are under threat much more.

Michele Gelfand: Yeah. Yeah, and we’re doing a lot more work now also on social class. This is a kind of hidden dimension of diversity that we don’t study so much. We’re building on some really great work in psychology on social class that was looking at collectivism and how family-oriented people are from working class versus upper class.

But we can also look at this from a tight/loose lens, and we can see that people who are in the working class, they have a lot more threat. They have to worry about falling into hard living. They have to worry about crime in their neighborhoods. They have to worry about occupational hazards in the kind of jobs they have. They tend to lean tighter. You can think about all sorts of mismatches when you have working-class kids going to predominantly loose institutions, like colleges.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Michele Gelfand: What happens with that mismatch? We’ve been starting to study that and understanding that we need to start thinking about diversity in terms of these underlying dimensions of culture.

Matt Abrahams: Interesting. That’s fascinating: the notion of class and how it fits in. Before we end, I’d love to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone. Are you up for that?

Michele Gelfand: Yeah, sure.

Matt Abrahams: Excellent. Question No. 1: If you were to capture the best communication advice you’ve ever received as a five- to seven-word presentation slide title, what would that be?

Michele Gelfand: I think one of the things that’s really important is to know your audience. Being passionate and charismatic, kind of empowering, I think is really important, but also being super-clear and so forth. I think it’s really important to make your audience feel like they’re the only person in the room. You’re just laser-focused on that person. That requires a lot of listening skills.

Matt Abrahams: Right.

Michele Gelfand: That requires, also, just pure attention.

Matt Abrahams: I just want everybody to notice that I gave a very tight restriction, and you blew away with a very open response. So many things you said are really important: knowing your audience, really helping give content that’s relevant to them. The notion of making the person feel like they’re the only person in the room is really powerful. I’m curious for Question No. 2: Who is a communicator that you admire? And why?

Michele Gelfand: Here I am being loose again. I have two…

Matt Abrahams: Two answers, all right.

Michele Gelfand: One is Harry Triandis. He was just someone who was so brilliant in his breadth of knowledge; but he was not someone who took himself so seriously — he was very humble, so much putting himself at the level of his audience. And I really admire that.

I was going to nominate Thomas Friedman, the New York Times journalist, for that, too. I have breakfast with him every so often, and we did a joint book talk when my book came out. And he’s also someone who really listens so well. He’s so passionate and so learning-oriented that he just wants to hear your perspective. He’s also brilliant and has so much knowledge. So when we meet for breakfast, we’re both just taking notes frantically. And I really admire how he operates and learns about the world through communication and listening.

Matt Abrahams: I hate to give you a constraint on this third question, but what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe?

Michele Gelfand: Audience, passion, humility.

Matt Abrahams: Audience, passion, and humility. We’ve heard the first two before. Talk to me a little bit about humility. Why is that so important to you?

Michele Gelfand: I think that people are much more likely to listen to you and understand you when you treat them with respect and when you don’t take yourself too seriously. That helps people to feel seen and understood, and that’s going to open their minds more to what you have to say.

Matt Abrahams: Thank you — and thank you for being here today. That idea of opening minds to what you have to say, you’ve certainly done that for us in a very non-threatening way. So thank you for that. And you make something that’s so important and serious very applied. You give us very specific techniques, and I, for one, am going to relook at how I interact with others. So thank you.

Michele Gelfand: Thank you for having me.

[Music plays]

Matt Abrahams: You’ve been listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart: The Podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business. This episode was produced by Michael Riley, Jenny Luna and me, Matt Abrahams. Find more resources and join our conversation on LinkedIn by searching “Think Fast, Talk Smart.” Please download and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

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