By: Kayla Matthews
The world is seemingly getting smaller. With the rise of social media in the last decade, everyone has constant access to what’s happening all over the world. Countless stories circulate on the internet every day highlighting entrepreneurs—young and old—who are at the cusp of innovation with their new products and ideas. Some stories go viral, catching the eye of millions of people who are in awe at the individuals’ innovative solutions to solve problems.
However, people often overlook how innovative ideas take shape from a cultural standpoint. Despite the growing connectedness of the world through globalization, there is a long way to go to understand how cultural differences—specifically, cultural norms across regions—impact the growth of innovation.
Sparking New Ideas and Inventions
When you look at the success of individuals based on their innovative ideas, you often don’t see or understand what it took for them to break through cultural barriers that led to—or hindered—their success.
For instance, after a rise of stories around young children dying after adults accidentally left them in hot cars, an 11-year-old boy from Texas invented a device to alert parents if it sensed a child left in a vehicle. The device would also provide cooling relief until help arrived. The media attention he and his father received from sharing his idea garnered $31,000 in donations from supporters to go toward obtaining a patent for the device. It’s precisely these innovative ideas and the community support behind them that spark the next generation of entrepreneurs.
However, not all cultures are accepting of novel ideas due to their cultural norms. To understand how cultural norms affect innovation, you must first understand the different types of cultures and the characteristics, standards and expectations associated with each that impact the perception of change.
Types of Cultures: Individualistic, Collectivist, Tight and Loose
In cultures, individuals share a set of characteristics, such as language, religion, food, social habits and much more. Each culture also has cultural norms—or a shared set of standards, rules and behaviors—they follow that impact how people interact within their culture and the world around them.
It’s vital to understand this because people’s culture often influences their thoughts, actions and behaviors. All cultures have unique characteristics. However, many countries around the world generally fall into two main types: individualistic or collectivist. Cultures within these categories can also be either “tight” or “loose” as well.
Understanding the Characteristics of Individualistic Cultures
In individualistic cultures, the needs and desires of the individual take precedence over the needs of a group at large. People enjoy their independence and ability to govern themselves, and often dictate their social behavior based on their preferences. Most cultures in North America and Western Europe function as individualist cultures, including countries such as the United States, Germany and Ireland.
Characteristics and traits of individualistic cultures include:
- High value on independence
- Individual rights are important
- A negative view of dependency
- Greater emphasis on uniqueness/standing out
Understanding the Characteristics of Collectivist Cultures
In collectivistic cultures, the needs of the group at large are more important than the needs of individuals. People within collectivist cultures value community and the social relationships that bind people together. Most cultures in Asia, Central America, South America and Africa function as collectivist cultures, including countries such as Japan, China, Korea, Venezuela, India, Brazil and Guatemala.
Characteristics and traits of collectivist cultures include:
- Unity and selflessness
- Doing what’s best for society
- Focus on family and community
Tight Cultures vs. Loose Cultures: What Are They?
Another way to categorize cultures is by determining whether the culture is tight or loose. Dr. Michele Gelfand, an award-winning cultural psychologist, bestselling author and professor, is an expert on the impact of culture on behavior. In a video, Gelfand explains the key differences between tight and loose cultures.
According to Gelfand, tight cultures generally have:
- Powerful social norms
- Tight constraints
- Little tolerance for deviance from norms
Tight cultures often have more order and coordination and are uniform. However, they are also less open to new ideas and are less creative.
Loose cultures are nearly the opposite, as they generally have:
- Weaker social norms
- Greater freedoms
- More tolerance for deviance from rules
Because of their openness, loose cultures are more disorganized, but they are more open to new ideas and are generally more creative, unlike tight cultures.
How Culture Impacts Creativity, Entrepreneurship and Innovation
When you learn more about the different types of cultures and their unique characteristics, you can better understand how cultural norms within the different types impact the creativity that often leads to innovation.
To be creative is to think of something novel and useful. However, different cultures value novelty and usefulness differently, according to “Psychology Today.” Past studies found people in East Asian cultures were less creative than individuals from Western cultures. However, more recent studies found East Asian cultures can be more creative when the innovation provides more usefulness than novelty appeal.
The difference boils down to the Western world’s focus on individualism versus the Eastern world’s emphasis on collectivism. Developing a novel innovation usually requires people to deviate from the norm to find a solution—a characteristic those in tight cultures with a collectivist focus often frown upon. On the other hand, new developments from loose or individualistic cultures are more likely to occur because of the praise and success the individual receives for thinking of an out-of-the-box solution.
In essence, most cultures value useful innovations because their development aligns with their cultural norms. However, the value differs for novel ideas based on cultural perceptions around creativity.
About the author
Kayla Matthews, a tech-obsessed innovation writer, has written featured pieces for InformationWeek, The Innovation Enterprise, The Muse and more. You can see more of Kayla’s work on her site, Productivity Bytes, or follow her on Twitter @KaylaEMatthews.