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| 2 minutes read

How Culture Divides Us....and How We Can Build Bridges

How does culture divide us? This was a question pondered during an RSA lecture by social psychologist Michele Gelfand. 

Michele talked about the deep social norms and cultural codes that define our behaviour. Rules and social norms shape our expected behaviours - anything from simple manners, to all driving on the same side of the road, or the expectation to wear clothes while in public.

As part of her research she has identified how those codes have shaped cultures that can be defined as 'tight' or as 'loose'.

'Tight' cultures tend to have lower crime, more uniformity (in the clothing that they wear, the car that they drive), and have fewer societal issues. They also tend to be less tolerant of difference.

'Loose' cultures are as you would expect the opposite of the 'tight' cultures - on the downside they tend to have higher rates of crime and more societal issues - the positive though is that these cultures are more open, creative, and open to change.

Michele said the 'tight' and 'loose' cultures share in common degrees of threat they're exposed to. These threats may be environmental (from natural disaster), terrorism, or population density for example - anything that presents future insecurity. We can see threats in organisational culture too - restructures, strict targets, or budgetary constraints for example. 'Tight' cultures tend to be those facing more threats. When you're under threat you need rules; it's an important evolutionary point for survival.

As with anything in the world, it's not about one or the other being better or worse - there are benefits and disadvantages to both 'tight' and 'loose' cultures.

In organisational cultures, the best leaders balance 'tight' and 'loose'. The best leaders enable creativity and innovation - and any innovation requires structure to implement. It's the structure and agency polarity that we talk about in The School for Change Agents. It's a both/and, rather than an either/or.

We've probably all experienced or witnessed a move to becoming more 'tight' during uncertainty and fear, whether in general society or at work. The inclination to gravitate to people who are 'like us' is natural; however this creates divisions by leading to us to tuning only (or mostly) in to the opinions of those who also think like us.

It also generates a fear of people different to us - whether that difference is in the way they look, or think.

We can help avoid, or minimise those divisions by bursting out of the echo chamber, by challenging stereotypes. By making a point of looking for similarities with those who feel different to you, rather than identifying only the obvious differences.

We can build bridges through having empathy for others' mindsets: being understanding, compassionate, negotiating differences. Remember that just because someone thinks differently to you, it doesn't mean they are wrong. Celebrate diversity and value difference with the range of alternative perspectives offered. A spectrum of allies, and diverse opinions can be the way to drive things forward.

Take the Mindset Quiz to learn how 'tight' or 'loose' you are by answering questions about how you act and react in situations. (If you're interested, my result was 'moderately loose', which means I'm someone less attentive to social norms, more willing to take risks, more impulsive, and more comfortable with disorder and ambiguity. They can acclimate quickly to new situations and more readily welcome change. Sums me up well!)

If you missed the lecture, a recording is available here.


Tell us your stories of celebrating diversity and valuing difference as part of the October Transforming Perceptions of Nursing and Midwifery Challenge. Find out more in Bev Matthews' post.

The School for Change Agents is a five week online course - find out more and sign up for the 2019 cohort here.

"If we could understand the rules of culture we would be in a position to create more understanding, empathy, and a better planet."


diversity, inclusion, futuremidwifery, futurenursing, s4ca, rsaculture