People, Places, and Things

The psychology of design: How to create an environment in which you will thrive

First Places and Place Rules – Independence and Interdependence

The cultures we learn as children influence the places we flourish later.

The cultural rules we learn as children are wide-ranging and hard to forget. Throughout our lives, they influence our table manners and our basic ideas about who we are, as well as how we perceive and use the physical world that surrounds us. This is the first in a series of posts about how our early experiences affect the environments in which we flourish as adults.

Some cultures value individual independence more than interdependence with other people, while other cultures cherish interdependence instead of independence. Geert Hofstede has not only identified this cultural parameter, but also researched how residents of particular countries tend to vary on it. People from Great Britain and its former colonies in the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand generally value independence, as do Germans, Belgians, Swedes, Italians, Danes, the Dutch, and the French, for example. Countries that generally value interdependence include some countries in Central and South America (Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, and Chile, for example), as well as people from China, South Korea, Pakistan, Portugal, and Greece, among others.

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Not surprisingly, people from cultures that value independence use the design of the places they control, such as workplaces and homes, to show off that individualism. People who value interdependence use those same spaces to reinforce their group memberships, often by following the implicit design rules established by other members of the same culture regarding furniture and color selections, the way spaces are used, etc.

People from cultures that value independence are more likely to modify the spaces in which they find themselves to meet their needs than people from more interdependent cultures. Members of more interdependent cultures are more likely to change something they're doing to accommodate the spaces they find themselves in.

When people grow up in cultures that value independence, they expect to be alone more than people from interdependent cultures. Not only are people from interdependent cultures more responsive to sharing spaces, they are also more likely to share other resources than members of cultures that prize independence.

Next time you're disagreeing with someone about the appropriate way to use a space, ask yourself if you and your opponent were born in the same country. If you weren't, you may have the explanation for why things aren't going so well place-wise. Since place-related rules are so deeply ingrained in us as children, feeling comfortable with modifications to them takes a long time - and a lot of patience.

When place-users are born in different countries, place-related compromises are often necessary, but they're never easy.

Sally Augustin, Ph.D., is a practicing environmental psychologist who studies person-centered design and sensory science.

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