Like so many people around the world who spending more time alone due to “shelter in place” and social distancing orders, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the world’s condition. We all see the world and events through our own lens, and as an interculturalist, I’m observing how national cultures impact the way we are reacting to Covid-19.
From a cultural perspective, we can all wonder: Why does it seem like Asians began wearing masks early-on? Why were young Americans partying on the beach, despite restrictions? Why did China deny the severity of the virus? In many ways, the answer is cultural differences.
That said, it is very important for us all to be aware of the enormous power of cultural values. To offer a global perspective, here are some ways in which our cultural differences are playing out during this crisis.
The Power of Saving Face
The Chinese cultural value of “Saving Face” may have affected the way the Chinese handled the outbreak of the virus. While showing respect and communicating respect is the essence of “face,” the value runs much deeper than that. The concept of “face” is the way You are seen and addressed and the way your entire group or community is perceived.
I believe that at least part of the reason the Chinese may have obscured the extent and potentially calamitous impact of the virus was the “loss of face” associated with the country being the “genesis” of the virus. This assumption is further supported by how the Chinese government reacted to public references that the virus came from Wuhan.
I see “saving face” as the reason the country declined outside assistance, that they minimized the extent of the illness, that they clamped down on reporters who were writing about it, and that they muzzled doctors who were talking about it.
This is a powerful example of the danger of cultural misunderstandings. If you don’t recognize the underlying cultural implications of national behaviors, you cannot fully grasp a situation and may react in entirely inappropriate ways. Think about how differently the world might have reacted if we understood the cultural implications of the initial Chinese reports and more properly interpreted what they were—and were not—saying. Undoubtedly there were many other reasons for the way China originally handled the outbreak, but this is one that is deeply steeped in cultural values and still not being adequately recognized.
The Power of Individualism and Group Orientation
Another apparent manifestation of cultural differences that’s been apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic is the concept of Individualism and Group Orientation. We can see this in several countries.
Many Americans (and much of the world) were appalled to see young people partying on the beach during Spring Break, while much of the US was told to “maintain social distance.” People asked themselves, “How could college students be that irresponsible?”
I believe that both a strong sense of individualism in US culture and the limited recognition of the responsibility to the group largely contributed to that behavior. This type of behavior was replicated in people not adhering to social distance requirements by continuing to pack into bars, beaches and parks until the local and state governments locked those facilities.
By contrast, we can see how Asian group-oriented cultures almost universally embrace wearing face masks to protect others and the community-at-large. This has been a long-standing practice and not one where the government had to intervene because people readily embraced it, likely due to the culture’s group orientation.
The Impact of Staying at Home and “Sheltering in Place” on High Relationship Cultures
You can easily see how high relationship cultures would have more difficulty with “sheltering in place” restrictions. For example, cultures that value interpersonal relationships tend to rely on acts like hugging, touching, and visiting each other to maintain their sense of well-being. The societal interactions are structured on being in relatively close to each other.
You can see that different cultures have reacted differently to the social distance imperative. Some cultures needed stronger laws and legal reinforcement of social distancing regulations, whereas it was more readily acceptable in others. In Italy (a high relationship culture that is suffering terribly), for example, needed legal permits to be on the road, while others, like California (where there is lower requirement for personal, social interactions), the suggestion to shelter in place was enough.
Of course, establishing social distance and “sheltering in place” is challenging for almost everybody, but we have to recognize that cultures where high relationship activities—from working on a team to having after-work drinks with colleagues to the importance of meals with extended family and friends—have a much more difficult time adapting to working from home and having restricted and virtual interactions.
Culture is Powerful
Culture is a powerful force. The more we understand how our cultural differences permeate everything in our lives—from all human interaction to all our values and behaviors—the more effective we can be in our everyday lives.