Traditional paddy rice farmers had to share labor and coordinate irrigation in a way that most wheat farmers did not. We observed people in everyday life to test whether these agricultural legacies gave rice-farming southern China a more interdependent culture and wheat-farming northern China a more independent culture. In Study 1, we counted 8964 people sitting in cafes in six cities and found that people in northern China were more likely to be sitting alone. In Study 2, we moved chairs together in Starbucks across the country so that they were partially blocking the aisle ( n = 678). People in northern China were more likely to move the chair out of the way, which is consistent with findings that people in individualistic cultures are more likely to try to control the environment. People in southern China were more likely to adjust the self to the environment by squeezing through the chairs. Even in China’s most modern cities, rice-wheat differences live on in everyday life.
Research has shown that wealthier, urbanised regions tend to harbour more individualistic personalities, while poorer, agrarian areas have more collectivist, community-minded ones. But why? A study from the University of Chicago published this week suggests such differences could be down to a region’s predominant crops—an insight gleaned, improbably, from observing nearly 9,000 customers in Chinese cafes. People in China’s south farm rice, which requires a whole village’s co-operation on irrigation; in the north, they grow wheat, far less demanding of collective effort. The researchers’ first observation was that latte-lovers in wheat-growing regions were far more likely to be alone. Then the team surreptitiously blocked thoroughfares with chairs. Among northerners, 16% shifted the chairs (individualism is marked by actively modifying one’s environment), while only 6% from the rice-cultivating south did so (collectivists tend to work with what they’ve got). It’s an intriguing sociological suggestion, perhaps to be filed under “you are what you eat”.
Randomly ran across this over the weekend and seems like the kind of cultural/food-related study that Jeremy Cherfas would enjoy.
References this study: Moving chairs in Starbucks.1
Talhelm T, Zhang X, Oishi S. Moving chairs in Starbucks: Observational studies find rice-wheat cultural differences in daily life in China. Science Advances. http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/4/eaap8469. Published April 25, 2018. Accessed April 28, 2018.