Linguist Mark Dingemanse, one of the project’s researchers, calls the results “heartening” and striking. “Many anthropologists and economists assume that there are big differences between cultures when it comes to cooperating or helping. We see a different pattern emerge.” The research shows that across cultures, small requests for help are as much as seven times more likely to be granted than denied. And if people do refuse, they explain why.
Passing the salt
These include requests for help such as asking to pass the salt, hold a door open, or help move a heavy object. The researchers deliberately zoomed in on the micro level of social interaction. They looked at situations where people were together and used language. “This is the only way to get a good picture of the human tendency to offer help where needed,” says Dingemanse.
“Existing research mainly focuses on situations where the stakes are high, such as lending money or sharing a hunting booty,” he continues. “In such cases, it becomes more important to make agreements, and people from different cultures sometimes do this differently.” But such situations are less frequent, while small requests occur on average every 2 minutes and 17 seconds in the many hours of video recordings of everyday social interaction that the researchers looked at. In these situations, the researchers found the same outcomes in all communities.
The researchers on this project are themselves from different countries, and they conducted fieldwork in communities with different languages and cultures. Dingemanse conducted long-term fieldwork in eastern Ghana, where he recorded daily conversations between people. “I asked whether I could put a camera down next to people engaging in daily activities, like peeling corn cobs or braiding brooms. During such activities, people sit and chat. Such interactions give a lot of insight into how people interact.” All researchers collected similar data and went through the recordings looking for requests for help. At an earlier stage, they also used this method to investigate misunderstandings and expressions of gratitude.
The fact that this project looked at human interaction at the micro level is quite special, says Dingemanse. “It’s easier to ask people in a survey what they would do in a given situation. But if you want to know anything about real life, you have to observe it closely. This is where we see that small requests for help are quite easily granted all over the world. We often don’t even thank the other person for it, because we take such things for granted. And yet, it is pretty special. Judging from previous literature, we could also have found important differences. This study does show that we need to be more careful with claims that emphasise cultural differences.”
The research was led by Giovanni Rossi (UCLA) and Nick Enfield (University of Sydney) and has its origins in Nijmegen's Human Sociality and Systems of Language Use project, for which Enfield was awarded an ERC Starting Grant in 2009 while working at Radboud University. Other Radboud University researchers who were involved in the project are Mark Dingemanse and Julija Baranova.