Say you're at your local coffee shop.
You order a cappuccino or a caramel macchiato and look for a cozy spot where you can settle in for an hour or two. But there's one problem: A bunch of chairs are blocking the aisle.
At this critical moment, do you: a) Contort and squeeze your body around the misplaced chairs, just in case someone had a good reason for putting them there? Or b) Move the chairs, so you can quickly sit down and start drinking your beverage before it gets cold?
Some academics believe that, at least in China, your choice may depend on whether your ancestors farmed rice or wheat.
"It sounds a bit crazy, I know," says Thomas Talhelm, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who put forth the idea in a study published last week in Science. "This definitely isn't what I'd call a typical way of doing a psychology study."
Indeed, it seems safe to say that never before has a study sought to test the influence of traditional agriculture in China on people's modern-day coffee-shop behavior.
Back then, he proposed that in southern China, centuries of rice paddy cultivation — which requires communities of farmers to work together and rely on each other — led to a modern-day culture that values cooperation and collaboration. And he suggested that in northern China, wheat farming — a much simpler undertaking that individual farmers could manage on their own — encouraged a culture that emphasizes individualism and self-reliance.
In his latest study, Talhelm takes his "rice theory" a step further, asking whether relatively well off Chinese city dwellers are still being influenced by their agricultural heritage, even though they have never set foot on a farm.
To test it out, Talhelm and his colleagues camped out at Starbucks and other chain coffee shops in major Chinese cities — some in the wheat-growing north (including Beijing and Shenyang) and some in the rice-growing south (like Shanghai and Guangzhou). These cafes have become a part of everyday life in Chinese cities — some estimates indicate that a new Starbucks branch opens there every 15 hours. So the researchers figured its customers would represent a good cross section of the urban Chinese population.
Among the 8,964 cafegoers observed, those in the northern areas were about 10 percent more likely to sit alone — a sign, the researchers say, of their individualism.
Then came the real test. Without telling the manager or employees, the researchers moved the chairs at five coffee shops around the country to block aisles and pathways. And then they sat in a corner and watched the reactions of more than 650 customers.
In the northern wheat region, 16 percent of customers moved chairs out of their way, living up, Talhelm says, to a cultural legacy that encourages people to take charge and forge their own path. At the cafes in the southern, rice region, only about 6 percent of people moved the chairs. The rest squeezed through the gaps, choosing to not cause too much of a stir, to adjust themselves to their environment rather than bending it to their will.
Talhelm points out that in Hong Kong — which is by many measures the wealthiest, most modern Chinese city and was exposed to more individualistic Western values during British colonial rule — only about 5 percent of the customers moved chairs out of their way. Ninety-five percent stayed true to the rice-growing way and squeezed around the furniture. And in another southern city, Shanghai — where Starbucks opened its largest, most lavish branch in December — the rate of people who moved chairs was even lower than in Hong Kong.
"I mean, the study is not surprising for someone growing up in southern China," says Jimmy Chan, a professor of economics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who wasn't involved in the project. "I grew up in Hong Kong, and I lived for 12 years in Shanghai," he says. "If you asked me, I supposed I would go around the chairs."
But Chan also notes that the disparities the study found aren't all that significant. Even if 16 percent of northerners versus 6 percent of southerners moved chairs, the vast majority of customers in the study — from both north and south — chose to sidle around the furniture.
Still, the findings are consistent with stereotypes in China that paint southerners as reserved or demure and northerners as assertive or macho, Chan says. "I guess the question is, can we really attribute it all to rice and wheat?"
Talhelm isn't the first person to fixate on how rice farming has impacted Chinese culture: Journalist Malcolm Gladwell proposed in his 2008 book, Outliers, that students in south China derived a tough work ethic from their paddy-farming ancestors.
But other social scientists have found that factors including climate, population density and historic levels of wealth have shaped Chinese culture more than any anything else.
Fengyang Wang, a psychologist at Nanjing Normal University, credits the southern Chinese tendency to value balance and harmony within their community to, among other things, a historic adherence to yin and yang philosophy, which teaches that all things exist as complementary and contradictory opposites.
In a critique of Talhelm's rice and wheat theory, published in last month's issue of the journal of the Chinese Psychological Society, Wang questions the assumption that northerners are in fact more individualistic — pointing out that historically, people throughout China have valued family and community.
"There's definitely been a lot of debate around this," says Alex English, a research fellow at Shanghai International Studies University who is studying how migration within China affects people's behavior and way of thinking — and how it may affect the rice/wheat cultural paradigm. Although he is a frequent collaborator of Talhelm's, English wasn't involved in this latest study.
"To really figure out how well this rice theory holds up, what we need is replication," he says. To that end, Talhelm is now looking for similar cultural patterns in India's rice- and wheat-growing regions.
Even so, social scientists may never be able distill a centuries-old culture down to just one or two ingredients, English notes. "For Americans who tend to lump all Chinese people together, this is a good reminder that there's a lot of diversity among the 1.3 billion people here."
And then of course, there are people like English — an American who grew up in an individualistic culture and moved to communalistic south China 12 years ago. What's his coffee-shop style?
"When I'm visiting the north, I'll definitely just move anything out of my way," he says. "But in the south, I guess I'd move around. It's like, you don't want to rock the boat, you know?"
Maanvi Singh is a freelance writer. Contact her @maanvisings