Observing Chinese Starbucks patrons reveals what their ancestors farmed, study finds

A new study analyzing behavior patterns of people across China suggests that the traditional interdependent rice-farming culture of southern China has resulted in today’s residents—even city dwellers far removed from farming—being more interdependent and less controlling over their environment compared to their countrymen who hail from the more independent wheat-farming culture of northern China.

The University of Chicago Booth School of Business study was conducted by Thomas Talhelm, assistant professor of behavioral science and William Ladany Faculty Scholar. Talhelm observed 8,964 people sitting in Starbucks cafes in six cities all across China and found that people in cities in southern China were less likely to be sitting alone.

The idea behind the study stems from differences in how crops are farmed. Traditional rice farmers from southern China had to share labor and coordinate irrigation in a way that most northern China wheat farmers did not, thus making them more interdependent and more enmeshed in navigating social relationships, rather than free to act independently.

“I think people in China have long had a sense that northerners behave differently from southerners,” Talhelm said. “This study suggests a reason why—rice farming—and that those differences are surviving into the modern age.”

In a second study, researchers moved chairs together in cafes, so that they were partially blocking the aisles. The study found that people in northern China were more likely to move the chairs out of the way, which is consistent with the findings that people in these individualistic cultures are more likely to try to exert control over the environment. This fits with the everyday reality of wheat farming, in which farmers were more independent from their neighbors than in rice villages.

On the other hand, people in southern China were more likely to adjust themselves to the environment by squeezing through the chairs in these cafes.

Talhelm became interested in studying the cultural differences between southern and northern China when he was living in Guangzhou, which is in the south.

“I noticed little things in people’s behavior there (in the south), like people seemed nervous if they accidentally bumped into me in the grocery store. It seemed like people were reserved, focused on avoiding conflict,” he said. “Then I moved up to Beijing and the north, and I quickly saw that being reserved was certainly not part of the Beijing way of conducting oneself.”

Even in China’s most modern cities like Beijing and Shanghai, rice-wheat differences in farming patterns live on today in everyday life in terms of different behavior of southern and northern residents, Talhelm concluded. Although many people talk about the urban-rural divide in China, the differences in this study were between China’s largest cities, suggesting that there are important cultural differences in China beyond urban-rural differences.

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