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The Secret Life of Social Norms: Michele Gelfand (Transcript)

Full text of cross-cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand’s talk titled “The Secret Life of Social Norms” at TEDxPaloAltoSalon conference. In this talk, Michele journeys through human cultures as she describes how tight and loose cultures wire our world.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Michele Gelfand – Cross-cultural psychologist

For 30 years, I’ve been studying a fascinating puzzle. It’s omnipresent… but it’s invisible. We rarely recognize it. It’s distinctly human… No other species has it. It produces a lot of cooperation… but also a lot of conflict.

This puzzle is culture. Culture is a powerful force all around us, affecting everything from our politics to our parenting, for our nations, to our neurons. And we need to know more about it.

We’ve used our big brains to accomplish many technical feats. We’ve split the atom. We’ve mapped the human genome and we’ve even discovered the laws of gravity.

But what if we could discover the laws of culture, the secret codes that are driving our differences, then maybe we can create a better planet for us all.

Truth be told, I wasn’t always so interested in culture. I was a sheltered kid from Long Island with a classic new Yorker cartoon view of the world. There’s New York. We acknowledge there’s New Jersey, but then there’s basically rocks, the Pacific Ocean and the rest of the world.

This view of the world was challenged when I ventured off to the UK for a semester abroad. And I remember experiencing massive culture shock and calling my father and among other things, I was confiding with him, how puzzled I was that people were traveling from London to Paris or to Amsterdam just for the weekend.

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