Jeanne Brett of Northwestern University discussed how confrontations are handled differently in different types of cultures. First, however, she noted that in her work she speaks about cultural prototypes, not cultural stereotypes. “The idea of a cultural prototype,” she explained, “is that there is a central tendency that describes the culture, but by no means are we expecting everyone—every group, every organization, every institution in that culture—to be exactly alike.” In other words, understanding a culture does not make it possible to predict the actions of all individuals in that culture, but it does make it possible to predict how people in that culture will behave on average.
With that preface, Brett introduced the three particular types of cultures that she studies in her research—(1) face cultures, (2) dignity cultures, and (3) honor cultures—and explained the attributes of each type (for an example of her research, see Brett, 2007; Brett et al., 2007).
Asian cultures tend to be face cultures, she said. “This means that Asians’ sense of self-worth is in large part extrinsically defined by what others think. A person’s face is the respectability or the deference that a person can claim by virtue of his or her relative position in the social hierarchy and through proper fulfillment of his/her social role in that culture.” Thus, she said, face cultures tend to develop in societies that have stable hierarchies and in societies that have clearly defined and reliably imposed social norms. Such cultures, in which behavioral expectations are enforced through monitoring and sanctions, are referred to as tight cultures, and they leave little room for individual interpretation or improvisation.
As an example of how expectations are enforced in a tight society, she told the story of an American graduate student who was visiting Tokyo with his wife and started to cross the street against a red light. He felt a tug at his sleeve and looked down to see a little Japanese boy pulling him back onto the curb. “Here’s this obvious foreigner who does not understand the tight culture rules, and so it’s up to all members of the society to monitor, enforce, and reinforce them.”
The second type of culture, the dignity culture, is exemplified by the culture in the United States. In a dignity culture, a person’s sense of self-worth tends to be intrinsic; it is determined by the person’s own beliefs about his or her worth and not by what others think. Furthermore, people in dignity cultures tend to believe that they are, at least theoretically, socially equal to one another. “Dignity cultures tend to be loose cultures in which social norms are relatively flexible and informal,” Brett said, “and in loose cultures, social expectations permit individuals to define the range of tolerable behavior within which they exercise their own