‘Tight’ and ‘Loose’ Cultures

Thursday, 14 May 2020

During this COVID period of time when people worldwide have been asked to stay at home or have had restrictions placed on them that have curtailed some liberties, have you ever wondered why some nations have complied more easily than others? Recently, I became aware that when the German Chancellor spoke about the need to restrict movement etc there was a high degree of acceptance and compliance. It was as if a social glue had bonded the nation in a way that was impossible to achieve in other cultures. Our kids grow up in relatively ‘loose’ or ‘tight’ cultures, workplaces, families etc. There is no right or wrong or better or worse in this, just a fact.

This was explained lucidly in a recent podcast (NPR - Hidden Brain; 7 April / Hidden Brain: The Power of Social Norms, June 2019) when social / cultural psychologist Michele Galfand spoke about ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ nations (and behaviours). Tightness and looseness are terms that refer to rule makers v rule breakers / restrictiveness v permissiveness / adherence to social norms v individuality and egocentrism / rule enforcement v less rigidity around enforcement / more communally minded v more individually minded etc. You get the idea. ‘Tight’ and loose are terms that can be applied to nations, states, societies and even families. And even within countries, there are domains that could be considered ‘tight’ and loose. Victoria is being tighter than Sth Aus it could be said. 

And in companies, the integration of the two organizational cultures, of the German car manufacturer Daimler-Benz and the American carmaker, the Chrysler Corporation, failed due to a culture clash – mainly to do with being ‘loose’ (US) and ‘tight’ (German). The two organizational cultures were too different to be integrated successfully.

Singapore is a good example of a country with ‘tight’ rules - for example, rules governing the chewing of gum, littering and spitting all of which are highly sanctioned. And Japan is another country with ‘tight’ rules whereas Brazil and the US have higher degrees of ‘looseness’. In one illustrative story, it was noted how the Japanese spectators (who come from a ‘tight’ culture) at the end of the Football World Cup, which was hosted in Brazil, would clean up areas of the stadium. This was almost comical for the ‘loose’ Brazilians who walked away from the rubbish and even had an acceptance of the riots at games. As a nation dealing with COVID-19, Brazil is also on the end of the loose continuum at the moment. 

Of course, there are many domains in a society where there may be levels of one or the other but overall, this level of being loose or ‘tight’ is one that shapes cultures and provides insight into how decisions that are made are complied with so readily. Compare COVID-19 response Germany (‘tight’) with Brazil (loose). Compare Singapore (‘tight’) with the U.S. (loose).

Galfand suggests that this has evolved over time for historic reasons. The extent to which a country is ‘loose’ or ‘tight’ closely correlates with the degree to which countries have had to coordinate their social behaviour and action in the face of threat. Japan for example, has been confronted with many natural disasters which has seen a high degree of compliance over government edicts. This compliance acts as a glue that binds the nation together. 

A country such as the US that has no national health system and a high level of emphasis on individual liberty and individualism is a good example of the dangers of being too ‘loose’ in this period of time. The idea of adhering to instructions for social good becomes anathema for many in a country obsessed with individual liberty. To the outsider, it looks like a people demonstrating for the right to be infected so they can infect others. As I mentioned last week, the problem has morphed into a political one in the US which is not unusual for politically ‘looser’ cultures. The splintering and subsequent polarisation of viewpoints in that country should be a concern for us all particularly when we now have such wild fabricated claims being made. What truth do our kids listen to? 

Waleed Aly said recently, ‘a world in which one reads newspapers is fundamentally different from one in which you curate articles in a social media feed. In the former, you’re somewhat at the mercy of the editors; in the latter, those editors are at the mercy of your preferences. We do not share facts for the same reasons we do not share cultural moments. That is our ecosystem now. This is why we can no longer deliberate, we can only energise then collide’.

And there is endless collision going on in some countries where the approach to tackling this problem has reflected the degree of being ‘tight’ or ‘loose’ – communally engaged and focussed as opposed to excessively focussed on the individual’s right.

Some cultures are ‘tight’ in so far as they have a low tolerance for deviation from social norms. ‘Tight’ cultures have a lot of rules and are strict about their enforcement. Any domain that is important to a nation is inclined to be ‘tight’. ‘Tight’ cultures have lower levels of obesity and alcoholism whilst ‘loose’ cultures are more inclined to be tolerant with less xenophobia and they generate more creativity. There is no right and wrong to this and one may not be better than the other, but it is an intriguing way to understand how we have responded to this COVID-19 crisis.

Organisations can also be ‘tight’ and ‘loose’ and it isn’t surprising that during this COVID-19 period schools have become tighter cultures (not that they were too loose in the first place) but in order to get the necessary transformation to learning that has taken place schools have had to operate in a tighter framework. The higher the level of threat, the greater the acceptance of us being ‘tight’ - just think of how accepting people have become as police monitor social gatherings and general acts of surveillance have increased. 

Australians have been surprisingly complaint and ‘tight’ for many weeks. Will there be a short-term backlash to this? Will we reflectively appreciate the benefits of acting communally and less egocentrically and continue to accept some loss of liberty for the greater good, or will we be so fed up with being shackled and restricted that we will push back and demand greater looseness?  

I have reread many who see this as the portend of substantial change to society and others who dismiss this. One thing is certain - confirmed in a recent Saturday edition of the Sydney Morning Herald that devoted a page to letters from students – they would much prefer to be at school. Many students feel/felt isolated and lonely – they have never been so connected but so isolated. One student’s letter said that the first week was great because she did not have to do PE, but now, she could not wait to return to school to take part in this. 

I believe we are going to have to live with being ‘tight’ for some time yet. This may annoy the libertarians but the majority of us are only too happy to forgo some freedoms to ensure the safety of the majority. Right now, ‘tight’ rules!

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