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The future of culture

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Read Time:35 Minute, 40 Second

[00:00:00] Michele J Gelfand: Tight loose is one dimension of culture. We can think about, this is a dimension about social norms. Social norms are these unwritten rules for behavior that sometimes get more formalized into laws and codes. But what we know is that while all human groups, we think, have social norms to help guide behavior, help us coordinate, some cultures are very strict about how much they enforce those rules, they’re called tight cultures, and some cultures are more loose. They have much more latitude, more permissiveness.

[00:00:33] Russ Altman: This is Stanford Engineering’s The Future of Everything podcast, and I’m your host Russ Altman. If you enjoy The Future of Everything, please follow or subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts. This will guarantee that you’ll never miss an episode, and you’ll never be surprised by the future of anything.

[00:00:50] Today, Michele Gelfand will tell us that being sensitive to culture matters a lot for success in life and in business. And you can measure your cultural intelligence and you can improve it, it’s the future of culture.

[00:01:03] Before I get started, please remember to follow the podcast if you’re not doing so already. And press the bell icon if you’re listening on Spotify. This ensures that you’ll get alerted to all of our episodes and never miss anything.

[00:01:21] Many of us have had the experience of entering a new culture. Sometimes it’s through travel where we find ourselves immersed in a whole different way of setting norms and having rules. Sometimes it’s just by making new friends or getting a new job at a company that runs things very differently. In all of these cases, your ability to adapt to the norms and rules of the new culture can be critical for success.

[00:01:45] Well, Michele Gelfand is a professor of International Business Studies and Psychology at Stanford University. And she’s a world expert on culture and how you can measure them and understand the differences so that when you find yourself in a new culture, you can operate optimally. And so when two cultures are having negotiations or interactions, they can find common ground to try to establish ways to work together.

[00:02:10] She’ll tell us that an important aspect of culture is this tight, loose spectrum. How tight are the rules? How tight are the norms and the ethics versus how loose are people? This difference is critical and many settings she’s learned how to measure it, and she’s learned how to change people’s cultural intelligence so that they can operate better in a variety of cultures.

[00:02:33] So, Michele, you study culture and its importance to individuals, to organizations, and to societies. I think it’s obvious we should start out with a working definition, what is culture?

[00:02:44] Michele J Gelfand: So it’s great to be here. I’m really excited. This is one of my favorite podcasts cause you’re such a crazy generalist. And I love to learn about everything. Like, you know, hyperventilating about any topic.

[00:02:55] Russ Altman: You’re very kind.

[00:02:56] Michele J Gelfand: From chemistry to culture. Um, you know, culture is really this, uh, invisible force that affects us. It’s omnipresent, but it’s invisible. And it’s really this set of like norms and values and beliefs that comes to be socialized through both parents and teachers and institutions about what is appropriate. Um, and it’s something that was really bizarre because as I mentioned, it’s omnipresent but it’s invisible. So we don’t really think about it. It’s affecting us all the time, but we don’t think about it. Which is kind of weird.

[00:03:24] Russ Altman: Yeah.

[00:03:25] Michele J Gelfand: You know, how is something like affecting all the time and not something we’re aware of. And it’s only when we kind of get outside of our cultural bubble when we travel. Whether it’s within a different region in our own country or elsewhere, we start having kind of a culture shock, like, wow, we start realizing that we’ve been profoundly influenced. Um, in terms of values, norms, and assumptions of how we operate in the world.

[00:03:46] Russ Altman: Okay, great. So that gives us a great foundation. And I’m just going to go right to it because you wrote a great book. And one of the principles, and I’m sure it’s very complex, but I think a very important factor is what you talk about a lot is this tight, loose distinction. Uh, and of course it’s not the only aspect of culture.

[00:04:06] Michele J Gelfand: Yeah.

[00:04:06] Russ Altman: But it’s an important one. Tell us how you got to that and why it’s so important.

[00:04:11] Michele J Gelfand: So I’ll just kind of back up. I’m a cross cultural psychologist. My father, Marty from Brooklyn, still does not know exactly what that is, but that’s okay. And, you know, really this field is trying to understand, conceptualize, and measure different dimensions of culture. That is to say, think about personality. We know that you know, we vary in various different dimensions of personality, extroversion, introversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness. What if we can build theories of the dimensions of culture that have evolved to affect human beings. And then try to understand not only how can we measure them and define them, but how are they influencing us?

[00:04:46] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:04:46] Michele J Gelfand: The what and the why and the consequences of culture. Tight loose is one dimension of culture. We can think about this is a dimension about social norms. Social norms are these unwritten rules for behavior that sometimes get more formalized into laws and codes. But what we know is that while all human groups we think have social norms to help guide behavior, help us coordinate, some cultures are very strict about how much they enforce those rules. They’re called tight cultures and some cultures are more loose. They have much more latitude, more permissiveness.

[00:05:17] And in fact, this distinction of tight and loose, of latitude and constraint goes back to even Herodotus, the father of history. Who started writing about it, not using those terms, but in the great book, I don’t know if you’ve read the history, it’s a fascinating book.

[00:05:31] Russ Altman: I might have started it.

[00:05:32] Michele J Gelfand: Travelogue of Herodotus. Yeah, give me a like, give me a cliff note version of that book. You know, he starts talking about the strictness of like, for example, Egypt in terms of how many rules there are on authority and purity and how you dress compared to other contexts like in Athens, where it’s like really much looser.

[00:05:51] So I really, um, started thinking about this construct some years ago, uh, an anthropologist started talking about in the sixties. But then it got kind of lost off the cultural map. And I started really systematically studying it, uh, through various different methods, through surveys, experiments, neuroscience, computational models. Uh, because culture is really complicated. So we need all those methods to show convergence.

[00:06:11] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:06:11] Michele J Gelfand: So that’s the kind of big picture. We can think about this as a fractal pattern coming from physics. Looking at kites across different levels of analysis, first looking at more smart macro, uh, approaches to look at nations, but then we can kind of zoom in and look at states, then we can zoom in and look at organizations, even our own households.

[00:06:30] Russ Altman: Yeah, that’s what I want today. That’s great. And I’m sorry to interrupt, but I know that you have this great little, um, survey online, and we’ll put a link to it in the show notes and, uh, you kind of recommended that I do it. So I did it. Uh, and I’m moderately loose, which actually saying it that way sounds a little funny, uh, but that’s an individual test. And yet you’re talking about it also at higher levels, like societies and organizations. So I think you were about to do this anyway. But go ahead and tell me how the individual tight, loose relates to what the societal?

[00:07:04] Michele J Gelfand: Yeah.

[00:07:04] Russ Altman: Are we going to have loose people in tight cultures, and are they going to be stressed out all the time, or vice versa?

[00:07:10] Michele J Gelfand: Yeah, this is a great question. So, we think about tightness as a fractal pattern, where you can look at tightness of the nation’s down to the neurons. But I want to be clear that, really, at different levels of analysis, we’re looking at different variables. So, in our model that was published in Science some years ago, I was looking at what are the ecological and historical factors that predict how strict or permissive social norms are, these rules for behavior.

[00:07:34] And then we can think about if you live in a culture that is quite tight, like Singapore or Japan or Austria. What are the individual level types of processes that are cultivated in those contexts? Like, we can call this a tight or a loose mindset. And that’s what the quiz measured. So for example, we know from that data that people that live in tight cultures tend to be socialized to actually look a lot for rules. Like they have high self-monitoring. They also are trained to manage their impulses a lot. And then you’re also in these contexts where there’s a lot of social order tend to have people who like a lot of structure.

[00:08:08] Now on the flip side, if you live in a loose culture where there’s lots of variants of what you can walk around and see lots of different things going on, then you need to actually be very tolerant of ambiguity.

[00:08:18] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:08:18] Michele J Gelfand: And so in this case, you might be not as likely to notice rules because it’s not as adaptive in that context. You might not be managing your impulses, but you might be more likely to take risks and be a little more impulsive and also be tolerant of ambiguity. Cause those things are actually adaptive in looser context. So that’s what the quiz is about tight, loose mindset.

[00:08:36] Russ Altman: Okay. So that’s really helpful. And, uh, and it kind of makes sense. And so just thinking about that and we’ve kind of, we have a working definition of culture as well. Let me just go right to it. When I look at the United States, should I think about one culture or a thousand cultures or two cultures? Like, how do you make these distinctions between where cultures begin and end?

[00:08:57] Michele J Gelfand: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think it really depends on your research questions. So, at the most macro level, like, okay, we want to try to differentiate countries in general. But then we can go into very heterogeneous countries, like the U. S., like China, actually. We can start looking at the state level or the province level or in Iraq, we have a new book on tight or loose in Iraq, the regional variation. And we can start reclassifying states as not just red or blue, but tight or loose. So we have a whole paper in PNAS that does that.

[00:09:24] And then what’s really fascinating from my point of view is, are there similar, similarities in what predicts tight, loose at those different levels and the consequences? And it turns out, there’s actually a lot of homology or similarity between what predicts tight loose at the national or state or organizational level. And it has to do with, broadly speaking, how much threat these contexts have. Threat can be from mother nature, think like how many natural disasters, famine. It can also be from human nature. Think about how many times your nation’s been potentially invaded by its neighbors. In fact, Hannah, my daughter, asked me some years ago, I was worried about Canada and Mexico invading us. And she was like five years old. And I’m like, sweetie, you need to relax first of all. Like, why are you thinking about this? But in fact, we quantified how much threat nations around the world, how much states had a lot of threat. You can look at this at the organizational level and we can see that actually the more threat there is, the greater the tightness that evolves. And it’s very simple idea.

[00:10:22] When you have a lot of threat, you need rules to coordinate. These are the very, uh, situations where there’s a lot of chaos. There’s a lot of temptation to defect.

[00:10:31] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:10:31] Michele J Gelfand: And you need strict rules and punishments to help people coordinate in those contexts to survive. And actually in the science data, we really just look at correlations. Okay. When there’s a lot of famine or invasions and so forth and disasters. We tend to see people rating their countries as tighter. We can also then use computational models because this is just correlational. And we could see with evolutionary game theory, when there’s threat, actually cooperation and punishment evolves. And we can even peer into the brain and look at what’s going on when people feel threatened. Um, and how is that helping them to coordinate their social action?

[00:11:05] Russ Altman: Yup.

[00:11:05] Michele J Gelfand: So that’s a big picture. I want to say not all tight cultures have had threat. Not all loose cultures are on easy street. There’s other predictors of this. For example, uh, cultures that have a lot of relational mobility and residential mobility where people moving around all the time tend to be looser. Because it’s harder to agree upon norms in this context.

[00:11:20] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:11:20] Michele J Gelfand: So there’s lots of different predictors and, you know, like height and weight, you know, there’s not a one-to-one relationship between these things. But it helps us to understand the kind of puzzle of culture and why sometimes it might make sense to have tight norms or might be more adaptive.

[00:11:34] Russ Altman: Great. Great. So now I, so one great thing is that you’re talking about a lot of kind of this is almost scientific discovery work that you’re doing in terms of these important distinctions. But I know that you’re, you know, you’re a professor of international business studies, and you also think about how these observations can be kind of reduced to practice to make people more effective.

[00:11:56] Michele J Gelfand: Yeah.

[00:11:56] Russ Altman: In situations where the cultural norms and assumptions might be different. And I know you teach negotiation, for example, and I love that. Because it’s like, oh, you know, I’m reading about your background, I said, of course, somebody who understands cultures might be very interested and perhaps good at negotiation.

[00:12:13] So tell me how the tight, loose, or the maybe more broadly the cultural studies. How does that inform people’s day to day skills.

[00:12:22] Michele J Gelfand: Yeah.

[00:12:22] Russ Altman: Uh, for example, in the business world or in any other kind of world?

[00:12:25] Michele J Gelfand: Yeah, I mean, this is a really great question. I teach a new global leadership class here at Stanford, and it’s really exciting to get out there and help people understand how do you understand how and why cultures vary, but then how do you use this knowledge to be a better global leader?

[00:12:38] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:12:38] Michele J Gelfand: And this is what we call, broadly speaking, the field of cultural intelligence, CQ. It’s actually,

[00:12:43] Russ Altman: CQ

[00:12:43] Michele J Gelfand: it’s really a field and it, you know, cultural intelligence is independent of general intelligence and it’s even distinct from emotional intelligence.

[00:12:50] Russ Altman: Right, because people talk about EQ all the time. This is not EQ.

[00:12:54] Michele J Gelfand: This is not EQ.

[00:12:55] Russ Altman: Okay.

[00:12:55] Michele J Gelfand: You could be someone who’s able to read each other’s emotions and even understand your own emotional life internally. But that’s different than knowing to understand that culture exists, that we can actually be having thinking about culture, like metacognition about culture, or trying to understand the rules of culture that’s cognition. Motivation is also part of this contract. How much do we feel comfortable? Do we feel efficacious? Dealing with people from different cultural settings.

[00:13:18] Russ Altman: Yeah.

[00:13:18] Michele J Gelfand: And are we able to adapt as a behavioral aspect of CQ? What’s really incredible is that we can measure this and then predict how well people do in global business context. So for example, I did a study with my former student, Lynn Imai. Where we measured CQ and we looked at how well people negotiated in intercultural context. And it was really powerful to see that people who had high CQ were able to better coordinate cooperative sequences. They’ve got better deals and this is independent of IQ or EQ. You could be super smart technically.

[00:13:46] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:13:47] Michele J Gelfand: But you could be a schmuck about culture. And really this is trying to help people to have, to be, feel empowered, um, to have a higher CQ. I do want to mention that when I first went to Champaign Urbana to get my PhD, I went to work with Harry Triandis. Who is the founder of my field. I would have gone to the moon. If he was on the moon, I would have been like, I’m going to work with Trandis on the moon.

[00:14:06] And I went there because I wanted to work at the State Department. It was around the time when the Baker and Aziz negotiations were going on, like the early 90s. And I was like, I’m going to go work in the State Department. I’m going to train these knuckleheads how to negotiate. But I’m first going to go learn from the best. And Harry was a great mentor, both, you know, just incredible intellectual. And also deeply a wonderful mentor personally. But he said, no, I think you should not go work in the State Department. Go become an academic and study this stuff, and then train people after you’ve learned as much as possible. And that’s kind of where my career path took a real, a little turn.

[00:14:38] Russ Altman: Yeah.

[00:14:39] Michele J Gelfand: So it was really serendipitous. And now I teach negotiation, as you mentioned, at the GSB too. And I’m quasi-religious about it, cause it’s something we do all the time. And we, most of us don’t really know much about it.

[00:14:50] Russ Altman: And a well-done negotiation can really, uh, literally lead to world peace. I mean, in fact, that’s what’s required.

[00:14:58] Michele J Gelfand: And also you can think about the household. You talked about your score being moderately loose. I actually score moderately loose on my own scale. This is kind of the Muppet quiz inspired by Dahlia Lithwick. You know, you have the kind of chaos Muppets, uh, and the order Muppets. And of course we can switch up our tight who’s mindset depending on the context. When we go to a symphony, we’re tightening up. You know, our inner Bert is coming out. You know, when we go to a party, like our inner Ernie is going to come out. Like, we can miraculously change up our tight who’s mindset. But we each have our own defaults…

[00:15:26] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:15:27] Michele J Gelfand: …that we feel much comfortable with based on our own background, our own culture, gender, class, etc. And so I want to get back to this, that you can also think about negotiating tight, loose, even in the household. So for example, my husband from the Midwest is also a lawyer, he veers pretty tight. And in fact, he gets deeply disturbed at how I load the dishwasher. And also the spice rack is a serious…

[00:15:50] Russ Altman: Oh, spice rack. Don’t get me started.

[00:15:51] Michele J Gelfand: You know, we’ve been married 29 years, so we kind of can handle it. But we negotiate tight loose all the time. This is like any other negotiation. There’s some domains in the household that we’re like, hey, these have to be tight, even with our two girls. And there’s other domains that we can say can be loose. And that negotiation, uh, it can actually change over time. And we now have two kids that are one in college, one just graduated college. Like the negotiation is different now around tight loose.

[00:16:16] Russ Altman: Yes.

[00:16:16] Michele J Gelfand: But it can change over time and you know, we can decide what domains need to be tight or loose, we can negotiate tightness.

[00:16:22] Russ Altman: Yes.

[00:16:22] Michele J Gelfand: And that’s also not just in the household, it could be in the organizations. That’s something, um, we’re starting to really do a lot of work on is how do you pivot when you need to be, how do you be ambidextrous?

[00:16:32] Russ Altman: Yes, that really rings true because I know, just as you say, there are domains in our relationship with my wife that where I feel very comfortable with the rules because it basically, because they match my personality. And then there are other areas where I feel like that’s a gift that I’m giving because I hate the rules, but she feels strongly about it, and I’m just going to let it be, and exactly this is how things have gone.

[00:16:54] Michele J Gelfand: Yeah, I think

[00:16:55] Russ Altman: Go ahead.

[00:16:56] Michele J Gelfand: Well, we can get into this a little later. But I think that one of the things that I’ve become really aware of is that there’s no like good or bad to tight loose. It really depends on your criteria. And we started looking at this at the macro level, across nations. But it also applies at different levels where tightness gives you a lot of order. It gives you a lot of self-regulation, a lot of discipline. Um, it gives you a lot of coordination, uh, even in, like, city streets, we measured, like, how aligned are clocks in city streets.

[00:17:25] In tight cultures, they’re off by milliseconds. This is like Japan and Austria. In loose cultures, like Brazil, Greece, you’re not totally sure what time it is. Like, they are really off. But clocks in city streets, it’s remarkable. Tight cultures have a lot of order, loose cultures struggle with order. They have less coordination, they have more variants. They have more discipline problems, more so self-regulation failures in terms of debt, in terms of obesity, even like research, my book showed that 50 percent of dogs and cats tend to be overweight in loose cultures, including my own beloved, uh, you know, uh, Pepper, my dog Pepper who passed away last year, like really fat dog.

[00:18:02] But loose cultures, corner of the market on openness, they have more tolerance for different people. They have more idea generation, more creative, they’re more adaptable. And tight cultures struggle with that.

[00:18:14] Russ Altman: Yup.

[00:18:14] Michele J Gelfand: Um, they struggle with openness. So one of the interesting questions I think we have as social scientists is how do we try to maximize both order and openness in any system? We might need to veer tight or loose for good reasons, whether it’s at the societal level or organizations. Think, you know, banks or lawyers or airlines or hospitals. They need to emphasize tightness. They need to emphasize accountability more. But if we get too tight, then we actually lose out on openness and on empowerment.

[00:18:40] Russ Altman: Right, right. No, it makes good sense.

[00:18:43] Michele J Gelfand: And if we get too loose, then, and this happens sometimes in social systems, we have too much empowerment, not a lot of accountability. So part of I think our trick as humans at any different level of analysis is to try to think about how to pivot when we need to, when we’re getting too extreme in either direction.

[00:18:59] Russ Altman: This is the Future of Everything with Russ Altman more with Michele Gelfand next.

[00:19:17] Welcome back to the Future of Everything, I’m Russ Altman and I’m speaking with Professor Michele Gelfand of Stanford University.

[00:19:22] In the last segment, Michele told us what culture is, she told us why it’s important to understand the differences between cultures, and she introduced this tight, loose continuum that is a very useful initial describer about how cultures are similar or different. And she also told us about cultural intelligence.

[00:19:42] In this segment, she’s going to tell us how cultural evolutionary mismatch can be a big problem and can sometimes explain why negotiations or mergers and acquisitions, fail. She’ll also tell us how we can change our cultural intelligence to be more flexible and adaptable in this pretty complicated world.

[00:20:04] Michele, you mentioned in our previous segment, culture evolutionary mismatch. Cultural evolutionary mismatch. That sounded interesting. So tell me about that and tell me how we can like use that for, uh, for our own advantages?

[00:20:18] Michele J Gelfand: Yeah. So you, you know, in evolution and biology, there’s this idea of evolutionary mismatches where this kind of trait that work really well in one environment when the environment changes, it could be really a serious problem. The famous example is the dodo bird.

[00:20:31] Russ Altman: Yes.

[00:20:32] Michele J Gelfand: That was like hanging out, very friendly bird in Mauritius, like, you know, having a time of its life and then like humans come in and they’re very friendly to them because they have this trait that worked well in this very stable, friendly environment. And they got wiped out because of this. And this is cultural evolutionary mismatch would be now thinking about this in terms of human traits, like that we’ve been socializing tight or loose. For example, what happens if you’re, you know, very loose and then you have an objective threat that happens. Um, now what’s interesting is that during COVID, um, I started thinking about this. I wrote about it for the Boston Globe and other outlets and said, hey guys, we need to tighten here in the US already. This is a hot mess, this place…

[00:21:10] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:21:10] Michele J Gelfand: …when COVID happened. And then I said, you know, a lot of our computational models show that when there’s threat groups tighten, it’s an evolutionary advantage and they loosen when it’s safe. It’s a pretty reasonable principle. But then I thought about, well, we never tested whether loose cultures take longer to tighten when it’s real threat. And particularly this was a germ. This is not like warfare or terrorism.

[00:21:30] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:21:30] Michele J Gelfand: Where that’s really objective. And so people can be motivated to distort it and kind of ignore it. Cause let’s face it, being in a global pandemic is pretty inconvenient.

[00:21:38] Russ Altman: Yes.

[00:21:38] Michele J Gelfand: So we started doing a lot of research on this cultural evolutionary mismatch in one direction that when there is an objective threat and loose cultures might not be as willing to sacrifice that freedom for constraint. And not all loose cultures, uh, of course, but in general what we did find eventually through both computational modeling and analyzing cases and deaths published in the Lancet Planetary Health is that loose cultures had about five times the cases and about nine times the deaths as tighter cultures.

[00:22:06] Russ Altman: Wow.

[00:22:06] Michele J Gelfand: It’s across 57 countries.

[00:22:08] Russ Altman: And did they also resist lockdown?

[00:22:11] Michele J Gelfand: Uh, you know, I think what we found is that what they had is a psychological resistance in the sense that they didn’t perceive it to be that serious.

[00:22:18] Russ Altman: Ah.

[00:22:18] Michele J Gelfand: They didn’t get the memo. The memo, the threat memo got interfered with more often in loose cultures. Now tight cultures have had a lot of history of threat, um, actually have gotten the kind of sense that while sacrificing freedom and constraint during threat makes sense. We need to coordinate and so forth. I’m not saying again that all loose cultures did poorly. New Zealand’s a good example of an ambidextrous culture that tightened and then loosened when it was safe. Not all tight cultures got it right.

[00:22:44] Um, now there’s another kind of evolutionary mismatch we can think about which is, a what if there’s not a lot of real threat, but people are amping up the threat and telling people there’s a lot of threat. That we could sort of argue is happening with a lot of populist leaders. There’s no like, um, you know, Trump is not particularly, um, unique in this. It’s happened across history that leaders will really use a lot of threat talk.

[00:23:04] Russ Altman: Ring the alarm.

[00:23:05] Michele J Gelfand: Ring the alarm. Use a lot of threat talk. Target the groups that are already feeling really threatened and promise to return to a tight order. That’s kind of a very obvious, uh, cross cultural psychology application, you know, that leaders probably know about. And we now recently started to really quantify threat talk. We have a new threat dictionary, it’s published in PNAS recently.

[00:23:24] Russ Altman: Ah.

[00:23:24] Michele J Gelfand: Where you can actually, it’s actually on my website, you can actually upload text. We actually analyze all presidential speeches for how much threat they used. We can look at what happens when societies feel like they’re being threatened. Does it produce the same kind of psychology as objective threat? Turns out it does. So, you know, we really need to be mindful when we’re online, when we’re listening to speeches. How much is our neurons getting activated based on threat? And is it real or is it imagined? And I think that’s a really big challenge that we’re having, uh, right now. But the more tools we have to assess it the better we are.

[00:23:56] Russ Altman: Now, I think some of these ideas also came into play when you’ve looked at business applications in terms of the compatibility of organizations. Can you tell us some stories in that area?

[00:24:05] Michele J Gelfand: Yeah, sure. You know, it’s so interesting because, you know, culture’s invisible and even the smartest leaders don’t necessarily know to think about this deeper cultural iceberg that they’re going to really encounter, like the Titanic, you know, when they start merging across cultures. And again, not all business leaders fall prey to this, but a lot of times we’re looking for like strategic compatibilities. But Daimler Chrysler is a famous example of a merger that was like perfect strategic compatibility between the German carmaker and the United States carmaker in terms of cracking into the European market and also lowering costs.

[00:24:36] But it turns out there are a lot of cultural differences that were making this merger really difficult. And of course, as you know, it went south, it divorced after it had a big honeymoon period. We set out to quantify just how much do these mergers affect the bottom line, affect financial performance. And we tracked mergers and acquisitions over 30 plus years across 5,000 cross border organizations. And we wanted to see like, are they the bigger, the tight, loose differences in their cultures? Are they having financial problems? And for sure they were even a small difference in tight loose could cause millions of dollars in financial performance.

[00:25:12] Um, and so this is a really important thing to think about before you start merging. Diagnose the cultural differences that you have and be prepared to negotiate them. Just like you would negotiate any other aspects of the deal. And the same applies to when we send expatriates abroad. We often send the most technically competent people abroad, not the people who are necessarily culturally intelligent. And this could cause a lot of problems. We’ve done a paper on this on tight loose expatriation and it turns out that people that have very loose mindsets that go to really tight cultures really struggle, for example. Um, and in part it could cause, you know, lots of psychological problems for the employee, their families, but also it can cost money in terms of returning home early, uh, leaving the organization and so forth. So culture matters and we need to talk more about it. It’s really empowering to think about how do we don’t not just understand it, but then use it.

[00:26:02] Russ Altman: Yup.

[00:26:03] Michele J Gelfand: Harness the power of these norms that we invented for the betterment of society, organizations, and households.

[00:26:09] Russ Altman: So I want to build on that expatriate example, because you said something that you talked about a CQ, and I had a million questions and we kind of, the conversation continued. But let’s come back to this, uh, cultural intelligence.

[00:26:19] Now, when you think about IQ, I mean, IQ, obviously, as you know, very well as a very controversial measure. But in general, people feel that it’s fairly fixed. Like, you’re not gonna change your IQ in general. You can change how much, you know, you can change a lot of things. And I hate even saying this, but I, and then emotional intelligence, I don’t actually know if people consider it to be something that you can improve or get worse.

[00:26:41] But talk to me about cultural intelligence. Is this the kind of thing that somebody could manipulate if they take one of your tests? And by the way, we’ll link to your, uh, CQ test, uh, on your website. But if they take a test and if they’re disappointed with their level of CQ, can they work on it or is it a just deal with it type situation?

[00:26:58] Michele J Gelfand: Oh, of course. Yeah, this is a great question. And you know, you can think about CQ in terms of four different dimensions. How much are we thinking about culture? Do we even notice it? That’s metacognition. How much do we know about other rules and values and norms of other cultures? And how much do we feel efficacious to be dealing with cultural differences? Like, can we adapt our behavior? These are all things that are eminently changeable through research, through travel, through reading, through, uh, taking my class. There’s a big pitch, you know, take my global leadership class, hire a cross cultural trainer, you know, and learn as much as humanly possible about culture.

[00:27:30] These are not easy things to change, especially at adapting to cultures, it takes practice. It takes, it’s a lifelong journey.

[00:27:36] Russ Altman: Yes.

[00:27:36] Michele J Gelfand: But it’s eminently learnable. We can even manipulate it in small ways and see big influences. And one of my classes, I have my students doing a negotiation case, which is between the US and Mexico. And in one condition, I tell them, hey, you know, you’re an American. Go in, diagnose the problem, time is money. You know, what’s going on at his factory. You gotta fix this. And I know what’s best. I’ve been doing this a long time. This is kind of a very American mentality, not all Americans.

[00:28:02] And then on another condition, I say, you know, your goal here is to be culturally intelligent. You’ve got to figure out what’s going on there. Let them talk, talk indirectly. It literally is a prime that is, I give them, uh, it takes about five minutes to read and it profoundly affects their performance during this particular negotiation. So even small doses of this can make a big difference.

[00:28:22] Russ Altman: Really interesting. It also makes me think a little bit of the old police tactic of good guy, bad guy. And you could reframe that as tight guy, loose guy, right?

[00:28:31] Michele J Gelfand: I’m thinking of Steve Martin in his, in the famous good cop, bad cop, uh, in the movie, the Pink Panther.

[00:28:42] Russ Altman: Yes.

[00:28:42] Michele J Gelfand: Where he comes in, he’s like, you can just see the same person, you know, it’s tight and loose in different contexts.

[00:28:48] Russ Altman: Great. Well, so just to finish up, um, are there, um, I think everybody’s thinking, um, we touched upon it a little bit. What are, what is this a useful skill when thinking about politics in the United States? We know that the, right now there’s a lot of division in the country. Is this a tight, loose division, uh, or is that way too simplistic?

[00:29:08] Michele J Gelfand: I think it’s part of it. I think that we are increasingly in many countries, not just the U. S., but in England, in Poland. I mean, it used to be that it was, you know, kind of the state level, but now it’s sort of rural and urban kind of cultures that we see around the world, that are very different ecologies. You know, rural contexts are much more stable. Um, their context where the networks are really tight. And urban areas, you require definitely different schools. They require a loose mindset. They’re very dense. They’re very, uh, heterogeneous. There’s a lot of coming and going.

[00:29:38] Russ Altman: Yup, unpredictable.

[00:29:39] Michele J Gelfand: I think the more we kind of understand why people have tight or loose mindsets, what about their histories, the more we can negotiate this. And also that we could see that we’re actually even more similar than we are different. I want to just give you an example. We published a study a few years ago where we were trying to help understand how to train people in the US and Pakistan to better understand each other. And, um, in this study, what we did was we actually collected daily diaries from people for about seven days in Pakistan and the US. And we told them, tell us everything what’s going on. Like, we didn’t edit these diaries. And then we randomly assigned people in Pakistan to read for seven days American diaries or Pakistani diaries and vice versa Americans. The reason we did this is they had really extreme stereotypes of each other when we did the initial qualitative interviews we asked Pakistanis they thought Americans were half naked all the time and having beer for breakfast and calling the police on their parents because they were too strict. And Americans, if they knew where Pakistan was, that was a big if.

[00:30:36] Russ Altman: Right.

[00:30:36] Michele J Gelfand: They just only associated Pakistanis as being in mosques all the time. They didn’t think about that, well, they might be playing sports, reading poetry, listening to music. The sampling that they had of each other was so small. And it was so extreme in a stereotype. So these diaries, we randomly assigned Americans also to read either American or Pakistani diaries. And what was astonishing is to see that people really shifted their perceptions. The amount of distance they saw between each other was really affected by them broadening their sample of situations that they saw, uh, each other in.

[00:31:06] And they, and the response at the end of these, uh, the study was really interesting because they say, hey, we know we’re different. But we’re not as different as we thought. And so maybe we can do a daily diary study with, within the US.

[00:31:17] Russ Altman: Yes.

[00:31:17] Michele J Gelfand: And then I’ll report back on it.

[00:31:19] Russ Altman: Thanks to Michele Gelfand. That was the Future of Culture.

[00:31:23] You’ve been listening to the Future of Everything podcast with Russ Altman. With close to 250 episodes in our library, you have instant access to an extensive array of conversations on a variety of topics that we’ll tell you all about The Future of Everything. If you’re enjoying the show, please consider rating it and giving it a five-star review. Your feedback helps us and will help other people find the show. You can connect with me on Twitter or x @rbaltman and with Stanford Engineering @stanfordeng.

Source: StandFord University

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