Moving Chairs in Starbucks: Rice-Wheat Cultural Differences in China

The famed Chinese cultural divide — wheat-centric in the north, rice-centric in the south — plays out even in today’s coffee shops, suggests this new study:

Moving Chairs in Starbucks: Observational Studies Find Rice-Wheat Cultural Differences in Daily Life in China,” Thomas Talhelm, Xuemin Zhang, and Shigehiro Oishi, Science Advances, Vol. 4, no. 4, April 25, 2018: eaap8469. (Thanks to Minna Lyons for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at Beijing Normal University, China, the University of Chicago, USA, and the University of Virginia, USA, explain:

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.

This chart presents a featured finding from the study—that “People in wheat areas were about three times more likely to move the chair than people in rice areas”:

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