Cultural Norms: Do You Conform?

Do you shake hands upon greeting? If so, do you use the right or the left? Is there a reason for this?

Do you smile a lot? Is it normal to smile at strangers in your culture? Is politeness valued by your society?

Whether you answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to any of these questions, the answers are related to the norms that exist in your culture.

Are we all susceptible to cultural norms, and are you conforming to them right now?


Conformity is expected in most cultures, but the degree of conformity is often based on the strength of a culture’s survival values vs. its self-expression values.

However, even in cultures where self-expression values are strong, individuals feel pressure to conform to some degree.

Does everyone, then, conform to norms?

It’s almost impossible not to. In the end, the degree to which one does depends on if an individual wants to ‘fit in’ or not.

Solomon Asch Study

In 1951, Solomon Asch experimented with societal pressure and its relation to conformity. Asch gave 50 male students from Swarthmore College a ‘vision test,’ in which one oblivious tester was placed amongst seven trained testers who had prepared their responses beforehand.

The students were given three lines (A, B, and C) to compare, and they had to choose which was the ‘target line.’ The answer was always obvious. Each of the trained participants would state their answer aloud, with the real participant answering last.

Of the 18 trials, the prepared group gave 12 wrong answers. What Asch found was that nearly a third of real participants conformed to the majority view, despite the fact that the majority was quite obviously wrong, with around three-fourths conforming at least once. Only a quarter of the real participants didn’t conform at all to the wrong answers. In the control group (a group with all real participants), less than 1% answered incorrectly.

Why Conform?

In their post-experiment interviews, real participants admitted that they didn’t agree with the answers of the crowd.

But they conformed to them anyway.

So, why are we so inclined to conform with something we think is wrong?

The participants expressed a fear of being thought peculiar or of being teased by their peers. Some also said that they considered that perhaps they were mistaken in their answer. The probability that an entire group answered incorrectly seemed less likely than that they’d been mistaken.

So, the study found that people conform because:

  • They want to fit in
  • They believe a group must be better informed than an individual

These are called normative and informational influences, respectively. And, in essence, they are what enforce a society’s values and norms.

Next week, we’ll talk about different types of cultural norms and what this conformity looks like. Stay tuned.

Cultural Values: What Divides Us? What Defines Us?

Values are at the core of cross cultural research.

In the 2011 abstract, The Value of Values in Cross-Cultural Research, authors Ariel Knafo, PhD, Sonia Roccas, PhD, and Lilach Sagiv, PhD, note that, “The centrality of values in cross-cultural research has more than doubled over the last three decades.”

This, according to their review, is because values are what define us, individually, and shape us, culturally.

“At the individual level,” the authors write, “values express broad, trans-situational motivational goals, affecting individuals’ interpretation of situations, preferences, choices, and actions. At the national level, values reflect the solutions groups develop in response to existential challenges and relate to the way social institutions function.”

And this is what distinguishes each individual’s values and each nation’s values from any other.

What Divides Us?

In cross cultural research, cultures are often divided according to particular sets of values.

Need an example?


This world map, compiled by Ronald Inglehard and Christian Welzel in their article, “Changing Mass Priorities: The Link between Modernization and Democracy,” differentiates the values of secular-rational vs. traditional values and survival vs. self-expression values.

What are these value sets?

  • secular-rational values – prioritize autonomy, secularism, rationality, and cosmopolitanism
  • traditional values – prioritize religion, obedience, national pride, and respect for authority
  • survival values – prioritize survival, due to its insecurity
  • self-expression values – prioritize free choice

This illustrates, as we’ve discussed in past posts, that not only do nations and individuals have sets of values, but other tightly-knit groups or subcultures – e.g. Catholics, Protestants, Confucians, Muslims, English-speakers, etc. – share core values, as well.

While many nations fit within these groupings, they slide on a spectrum of core values, depending upon how strict or lenient they are regarding secular-rational vs. traditional values and survival vs. self-expression values.

For instance, Spain and Croatia are pretty much smack dab in the middle of both crossroads. And as you might notice when visiting these two countries, survival and self-expression values coexist fairly harmoniously, as do traditional and secular-rational values.

However, if you visit any of the Nordic countries (particularly, Sweden), you will find their cultural values are on the far end of self-expression, as well as secular-rationalism. Someone from a nation with traditional or survivalist values – like Zimbabwe, Morocco, or Pakistan, for instance – might have a hard time integrating into cultures on the extreme end of self-expression and secularism.

What Defines You?

So, how much do our nation’s values influence our own? To what extent do the values of the subcultures we belong to impact us? And what values are we choosing individually?

We’ve discussed how important parental values are in defining the values of children during the stages of primary socialization. These are often some of the most deeply-rooted within a human being. Parents are the moral compasses of a family – and, essentially, of a society.

Cultural values might reinforce this compass or distort it, depending upon whether a child’s parents go with the tide or against it. But, essentially, an individual’s value compass is magnetized at home, after which the magnetic pull of their culture and subculture may offset it from due north. In this way, each of us is a unique cross-breed of family and society.

And this is what defines us.

Next week, we’ll talk about one of the standards by which these values are magnetized: cultural norms.

Social Power Structures & Business Culture: Where are You in the Pecking Order?

Can you question authority in your company? Are you allowed to talk to your boss…look at him/her directly? If you’re on the low end of the pecking order, is your voice heard?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you’re probably working in a Western company culture.

If you answered ‘no,’ you’re probably in the East.

We’ve been talking about the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures for the past two weeks. Now, let’s take a peek at what happens in a business, East vs. West.

Social Power Structures

Social power structures are one of the most obvious contrasts between the East and the West.

The East centers around a hierarchical structure. Think of it as a building with no stairs. Only floors. Those in a higher position of power socialize at the top level, and those in a lower position of power socialize at the bottom. There is no crossing between the floors. There are social barriers. And, in fact, one might lose face if they mingled with a lower class.

The West, on the other hand, has an egalitarian structure. There are stairs and elevators in the building, and everyone from CEOs to janitors is welcome to cross between. Conversation is much looser and less formal. Inclusiveness is important. And you could argue that those who are able to talk to everyone on their level with grace, treating all with dignity and respect, would gain face doing so.

Social power structures are deeply ingrained in a culture. In the West, the homeless may be invisible to most, but they have a voice to others. In the East, they are invisible and voiceless to all.

Innovation & Business Culture

Ambition and initiative are also Western values which, if imitated in the East, would not go over so well.

For instance, say you’re a newbie at a company. You’ve got a brilliant new idea that will speed productivity sevenfold. You present it to upper management, without prompt, during a morning meeting.

Would you a) be rewarded, or b) be shunned?

In Western companies, this free-thinking initiative would be viewed positively. Ambition is, more often than not, a valued trait in the West.

In Eastern companies, a newbie trying to crack through the hierarchy would be seen as disobedient and, perhaps, a bit dangerous to upper management. This is due to the top-heavy concentration of power. Those in the lower ranks who try to “prove” themselves are putting a toe out of line, breaking the harmony. And they’d lose face because of it.

Cross-Cultural Environment

If you intend to work in a cross-cultural environment, knowing the values of the culture in which you’ll be working – especially the social power structures and business culture – will improve your chances of success.

Knowing these intricacies of culture will help you not to lose face before you even gain one.

What Makes a ‘Face’: Losing Face, East vs. West

When you hear the term “losing face,” more often than not, you associate it with Eastern cultures. But people of every culture have “face” that they can either lose or save.

Basically, “face” is pride, esteem, and reputation, which is interpreted and determined in different ways, depending on the culture in which you live. Face is, in short, the idea that you must behave or achieve in a certain manner to preserve your image. What makes up your “face” and how to “save” it depends on what your culture values.

Face: East

Tradition is greatly emphasized in Eastern cultures, and face can be had by birth (i.e. if you were born into a family of status or wealth).

Last week, we talked about how collectivist societies tend to value group harmony over individualism. Personal ambition or success is much less important than improving the whole.

This prevents individualist characteristics from being fostered from youth. For instance, I’ve been told by Chinese students that they receive lower marks or fails on essays or exams if they contradict the teacher’s opinion or the culturally accepted sentiment on any given topic, no matter how well argued. For this reason and for similar standards set during primary socialization, you find fewer who will “rock the boat,” so to speak, in collectivist countries than you might in their capitalist counterparts.

Individualism is considered much more radical in places like China. It is not embraced, and those who are unconventional and break the mold are thought to be aggressive. Due to the fact that harmony is of the utmost importance to collectivist cultures, anyone considered disharmonious would lose face under this set of cultural values.

Face: West

Western cultural values lie in individualism and independence. They’re also geared toward innovation and so embrace change more readily over tradition.

And in the West, you must earn your face. It isn’t given to you. Even if you’re born into a wealthy family or a family of status, more often than not, you must prove yourself to establish a face.

To make your face, you must make yourself. And to do so in an individualist culture, you must stand out from the crowd. You can do this through professional/personal success or achievement, status, wealth, etc. And once you obtain a certain level of recognition, whether in your town or nationwide, whether in your company or your industry, you must reassert your voice regularly to maintain face.

What can make a Western person of stature lose face?

Disgrace can. Disgrace paramount to much of what is going on in America right now, with sexual assault and harassment scandals knocking down titans of entertainment, politics, and industry. This is just one of the things that can make a Westerner lose face.

Can Face Be Restored?

Face can be restored only through drastic measures in collectivist cultures. In the East, once one’s reputation has been damaged, it’s nearly impossible to recover. As put by sociologist Marcel Mauss, in such cultures, “to lose one’s face is to lose one’s spirit.” It’s better to avoid such face-destroying conflict, altogether.

In Western cultures, if face is lost, it can be more readily restored. In fact, many cheer comebacks, and the restoration of a good reputation might even be considered inspirational by some.

Whether face is restored or not, the loss of it cuts deep in any culture.

Next week, we’ll continue contrasting Eastern and the Western values by discussing the differences in social power structures and business culture. Stay tuned.

How Cultural Values Inform Communication

You are an individualist. Your goal in life is to succeed on your own. To seek out your fortune, using your own talents, your own mind. Individual achievement is paramount to your self-actualization and identity. You believe you have your own voice. You use it. You speak out, directly and without hesitation.

You are a collectivist. Your goal in life is to succeed as a group. To seek out the fair share for all, utilizing everyone’s talents, with a group mindset. Collective achievement is paramount to the group’s well-being. You believe in group think. You speak when expected to, indirectly and with caution.

There are outliers in any culture but, in general, these are the differences between Eastern and Western communication. And it all comes back to the values that inform our behaviors.

What Drives Western Cultures?

“If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington

Capitalism and freedom are often the driving factors behind Western cultures. Democracy, free speech, individualism – these values inform the West’s cultural behaviors.

Western communication is direct, clear, and concrete. There’s nothing ambiguous about it; no beating around the bush or mincing of words. The meaning of speech isn’t often lost in a sea of vague undertones or unspoken “understandings.” Nothing is implied or inferred when it comes to business communication. Both parties are taken at their word.

To put it simply, the cards are on the table.

What Drives Eastern Cultures?

“If what one has to say is not better than silence, then one should keep silent.” – Confucius

Collectivism (and in some cases, communism) and harmony are often the driving factors behind Eastern cultures. These values inform the East’s cultural behaviors.

There’s a don’t-rock-the-boat mentality in some Eastern cultures. So, when it comes to communication, they find the straight-shooting of Western cultures ill-mannered.

Nonverbal and indirect communication is favored by many Eastern societies. This is because the group’s entire harmony, as opposed to individualism, is valued.

But this harmony may only play out in words, not necessarily in actions.

For instance, in Chinese culture, a colleague may tell you he’ll have his work in by a certain deadline, but then fail to do so. He may not even have intended to meet this deadline when he claimed he would.

While this might seem to Westerners a form of deceit, it’s more often done to maintain a surface level of harmony than to lie. Others in the culture would understand that their colleagues’ actions wouldn’t necessarily align with their words. This is accepted.

The fact is, the culture knows itself. A direct “no, I can’t get you that by deadline” upsets the balance – an unharmonious response that would make one “lose face.” And so, whether the colleague will keep his word isn’t the issue; the surface harmony is. Therefore, inconsistency is anticipated and accepted by all, so that the relationship may be preserved.

East vs. West Communication

If communication was a body of water, then the Eastern sea would be a glassy surface with plenty of disturbances below, whereas thousands, millions of raindrops would make their mark on the surface of the Western sea, with some waves, and even maybe a hurricane or two.

Either way, when the two seas meet, both sides can be frustrated with the differences in communication styles. Some may even “lose face,” which we’ll talk about next week.

Values: What Are They & How Do They Shape Culture?

You often hear various groups and cultures talk about their “values.”

But what are values, really?

Are they only ideals? How are they put into practice?

Values are practiced ideals; they’re principles or standards to live by. In a culture, they distinguish between what is important or unimportant. What is worth fighting for and what is not. What is good and what is evil and, correspondingly, who is good and who is evil.

Values are a culture’s unwritten rule of law. In fact, sometimes, a culture’s values influence the nation’s written laws.

Swiss Values

Let’s take a look at Swiss values, for example.

According to ediplomat, “The Swiss value cleanliness, honesty, (and) hard work…They value sobriety, thrift, tolerance, punctuality and a sense of responsibility.”

Swiss values also include environmentalism, freedom, orderliness, neutrality, and world peace. We’re also savers and are proud of the material wealth that accompanies economic responsibility.

You can see these values come to life in our culture. In the way we dress, the way we behave, the way we live.

Walk down any street in Geneva, and you’ll notice several things: gorgeous greenery, an absence of litter, Swiss people dressed clean and neat and, yes, plenty of wealth.

You can also see these values in our policies and politics.

The Swiss unadjusted unemployment rate rarely exceeds 4% and dropped to 3% in June of 2017, which is less than the average 4-12% unemployment in other developed countries. This may be partially attributed to our values of hard work and our sense of responsibility.

Being a neutral nation, we’re also not a member state of NATO. We are, however, members of the Partnership for Peace, which cooperates with NATO on crisis-management training and operations, as well as humanitarian missions.

This is how cultural values are made manifest: putting into practice the ideals that are most important to you and your broader culture.

Swiss Values-turned-Laws

You can see Swiss values represented in written law, as well.

Take jaywalking, for example.

In many countries around the world, a slap on the wrist is the most you’ll get for jaywalking. In fact, in most places, you won’t even get that – it’s acceptable to cross the street wherever and whenever you choose.

But, in Switzerland, our values of orderliness, sobriety and our sense of responsibility come into play yet again. Jaywalkers are disturbing the order of things and aren’t taking the risk of potential pedestrian fatality seriously. Therefore, jaywalkers are fined on the spot by police if caught in the act.

This is just one of many written laws and unwritten norms that exemplify our values in Switzerland. Next week, we’ll talk about the difference between individualist and collectivist cultures and where their values diverge.

The Cult of Company Culture

Last week, we talked about how national cultures can be divided into regional cultures and subcultures. This goes a step further.

Companies have their own culture, as well.

That’s because whenever people are grouped together, they build a culture. And the way that companies build is often with this cultish veneration of shared ideals – ideals they wish each and every one of their employees to hold true.

Company culture has become a selling point for employment. When Starbucks or Tesla is hoping to hire the best, they must promise a thriving ecosystem to work within…an ecosystem with plenty of incentives and inclusivity.

Here’s a look at how some companies got it right, and where others have got it wrong.

Popular Company Cultures

Google famously treats its employees to an “adult playground,” with perks like gyms, swimming pools, video games, nap pods, free haircuts, on-site physicians. You name it.

This has driven Google’s success, encouraging employees to be more creative, productive and to think outside the box.

Netflix, as well, have become renowned for their company culture manifesto. They strive for inclusivity and are averse to the so-called “brilliant jerk” that you might identify with Silicon Valley.

In fact, they only retain those who pass a “keeper test” – that is, managers choose whether or not they’d fight to keep their respective employees, and if they wouldn’t, they’re let go. This way, their culture is cultivating only the best of the best.

Netflix’s primary aim is to motivate its workers, as is shown in its most recent culture doc, which closes with this stanza by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

If you want to build a ship,

don’t drum up the people

to gather wood, divide the

work, and give orders.


Instead, teach them to yearn

for the vast and endless sea.

Pretty inspiring stuff, right?

Unpopular Company Cultures

Like Google or Netflix, you can build up your employees through incentives, inspiration, and inclusivity…or, like Uber, you can build a toxic company culture through ineffective human resources, vague company values, and company crisis after company crisis.

Uber’s company culture has been described as “aggressive” and “unrestrained.” In this past year, sexual discrimination and harassment led to an internal crisis that has played out in the media.

However, with new leadership on board, the company’s values are changing, as is Uber’s ability to surface problems more quickly. The company can still evolve its culture, turn it around, and build something that its employees are proud to build with them.

Company Culture -> National Culture

As with company cultures, values can either be promoted or condemned by national culture. Management is the driving force in actively shaping their company culture’s values, and a nation’s leaders – politicians, scientists, writers, artists, actors, business leaders, or other influential peoples – shape ours.

Next week, we’ll talk about these values, how they are formed, and what they mean to you.

Cultures & Subcultures: Where Do You Belong?

What is culture?

We’ve discussed the definition of culture in previous posts, and the history of this definition.

To sum up: Culture is the shared values and norms of a group of people which result in characteristic behaviors.

But, wait…

If culture involves characteristic behaviors of a group of people, must the word encompass an entire nation? Must all of Mexico, all of Brazil, all of Russia, all of Australia be colored with the same shade of culture?

No. Absolutely not.

Although we implicitly assume that culture involves national identity, this is an oversimplification. Every country in the world is divided into dozens of subcultures and regional cultures.


According to Kimberly Moffitt, a teacher of Sociology and Criminal Justice, “Subcultures are those groups that have values and norms that are distinct from those held by the majority.”


Punks. Hipsters. The Beats. Cosplayers. Hippies. Goths. Nerds. Emos. Gamers. Hackers. Jocks. Even Third Culture Kids, like me.

The examples are endless. And each group shares its own set of values and norms, resulting in extreme diversity across a single nation.

Regional Cultures

Moreover, visit any country in the world, and you’re sure to find regional cultures, as well.

Take America, for example.

“Biscuits and grits, y’all.”

Southern culture is unique. Southerners in America eat differently, speak differently, and dress differently than those on the East or West Coast or even the Midwest.

“The way I talk is, like, way important.”

Head to California, and you might find this so-called “Valleyspeak.” But you’re unlikely to find it anywhere else in America, because upspeak is not unilaterally culturally ingrained.

Regional cultures only narrow further. Put the Big Apple under a microscope, and you’ll find a different culture in the Bronx than you’ll find in Manhattan, a different culture in Soho than you’ll find in Harlem or Brooklyn.

Regional cultures are prevalent all over your nation, all over my nation, all over the world. It’s no wonder national politics can be so discordant: diversity explodes within the 304.6 mi² of New York City, so imagine how varied shared values must be across the national scale of 3.797 million mi².

Grouping = Culture

Whenever people are grouped together, they build a culture, in one way or another. Whether a national culture, a regional culture, a subculture based on specific likes/dislikes, or a company culture, which we’ll talk about next week, each grouping shares a set of values and norms specific to itself.

Whatever the case, being part of a culture makes you feel as though you belong to something bigger than yourself.

A Personality that Thrives in Any Culture

Would stereotypical Japanese politeness go over well in Spain?

Would a boisterous Brit prosper in the Middle East?

Would a Chinese tourist breaking the queue find his place in Germany?

To all of the above: probably not.

Last week, we talked about how culture connects the dots between human kind and individual personality. This week, we’ll talk about how certain personalities thrive better in certain cultures than others.

The German African

According to Sarah Mae Sincero of Explorable, “People who are born and bred in the same culture share common personality traits.”

While this is true, much like anything, it’s not black-and-white.

One German friend of mine lived in Accra, Ghana for a while. He joked that he’d found someone more German than himself in Africa. His African maid always arrived punctually, polished the house until it shined, and arranged his pots and pans so orderly that “they stood aligned like a Prussian army division.”

While this particular woman stood out in her own culture as somewhat odd, she would have fit perfectly into German society.


The point is, culture does not determine personality completely, but it does impact the personalities and character traits generally found in a culture. Unlike our genes, our culturally-learned behaviors can change, be rejected, forgotten, or un-learned. So, while someone with brown eyes will always have brown eyes, individual personality can vary and adapt.

That doesn’t mean odd personalities and behaviors are acceptable to all cultural groups. They must generally fit within the confines of what is culturally acceptable. But it does mean that you might get the odd duck amongst all the gaggling geese.


We each choose whether or not to fit into our own culture. This means we can choose whether or not to fit into another’s.

As individuals, we decide for ourselves which behaviors to adopt and which to reject. We decide what is important to us.

Many Germans choose to be orderly; some don’t. Many Swiss choose to be punctual; others don’t. Many Americans choose to be outgoing; a handful aren’t.

No culture is one shade of grey.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t cultural norms and that some personalities don’t thrive better in certain cultures than others.

So which personality thrives best?


As you’ve probably guessed, the preferred personality and character traits differ across cultures.

Take Switzerland, for example.

It is true that Swiss culture promotes punctuality. In fact, one survey showed that it was ranked the most important value to Swiss people. Trains run on time in Switzerland, and it’s disrespectful to be late to a meeting. Someone who is constantly running late is considered unreliable. Switzerland is known for dominating watchmaking, and so it only makes sense that punctuality and time are respected in this small country. Most Swiss people accept the norm and adapt to it.

So, if your personality is punctual, as well, you would thrive better in Switzerland than someone who is constantly late.

What we are able to say about the Swiss then is that they are “generally punctual.” But we can’t say, “This man is Swiss, so he must be punctual.” A culture is not assessed in totality, because individual personalities make up the culture, so it is important not to judge an individual based on their culture or a culture based on the individual.

In the end, you may luck out in that your personality is gels with the culture into which you plan to integrate. However, if it doesn’t, the most important personality trait to adopt would be adaptability, as those who thrive best in ANY culture are adaptable and not cemented in one’s own cultural tradition.

Human Nature -> Culture -> Personality: Connecting the Dots

It’s fair to say that every living being reading this post and thinking about it has one thing in common: our shared genetic heritage. We are all human.

Human Nature

What makes us human?

When we get down to the nitty gritty, our species survival needs are the same in every corner of the world: food, water, shelter, and nurturing.

Nurturing is, on a very human level, the need to grieve loss, to love and be loved. These things are human nature. This is our common genetic heritage.


What makes us, us?

Our shared needs make us part of the human species, but what makes us our individual selves?

Out of 8 billion + people on this Earth in this moment, we are all unique, and this is due to our personalities and character traits. Personalities and character traits are partly genetic, party acquired.

And what are they acquired from?

Say it with me now: culture.

Of course, culture shouldn’t be given all the credit for our individual uniqueness, but it should most certainly be given some. What we grow up around and surround ourselves with can’t help but influence our frames of interpretation, our characters, and our outlooks on life.


What makes our culture?

This is a bit of a “what-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg” scenario: Do we create our culture or does our culture create us?

As with most things, it’s a little bit of both.

Our cultures create us, and we create our culture. We propagate our traditions, our customs, our norms, and we also evolve them, sprouting new branches off our cultural tree.

Unlike our personalities and human nature, however, culture is purely acquired. It is learned; it’s not genetic.

Culture, therefore, serves as the layer between the individual and humanity. It’s the acquired human element, without any genetic input, that groups of individuals are bound by.

Learned behaviors, learned frameworks of interpretation, learned means of communication – these are the things that make social life possible. A common culture makes communication and understanding easier, not only through a shared language, but through the understanding of one’s shared culture.

Family structures, morals, values, fashion, language, behaviors: these are all learned. They are all cultural elements. And they’re what connect the dots between human nature and individual personality.

Next week, we’ll talk about how certain personalities thrive better in different cultures.