Divided, we stand; united, we fall?
Corona across cultures
By Gert Jan Hofstede, 2020 04 08
The corona pandemic is a big equalizer. We are all ants in the same huge human family hive that got infested by a tiny, deadly intruder.
No, wait! The corona pandemic shames and isolates us, making us lonely individuals and isolated countries, hiding away, scared of one another, dying without farewell.
Which is true? Both are. It is the immediate relevance of the danger that both isolates and connects us.
Our fates are thus connected across the world, in a much more pressing way than for climate change. Actually, compared to e.g. the Medieval plague, it’s a very mild pandemic. Coronavirus tends to spare women, children, and healthy people. Compared to climate change, coronavirus is hardly a threat. It is immediate, though. It hits us, not our some-day offspring.
What does this do to our sociality? What does this mean in different cultures? In this blog I’ll deal with these questions. I’ll need more space than you are used to from these blogs.
Our attitudes towards a pandemic such as coronavirus have three potential phases.
Phase 1: acknowledge
First, we (the people or its leaders) need to acknowledge the danger.
We could under-react: If we have other pressing concerns to our collective health or economy, or a disjoint society, we may not notice the new cases of pneumonia. If we are in a responsible position and have reputation concerns, we may sweep them under the carpet. If we fear retaliation, we may not report anything.
We could over-react: a new stressor could make us panic and do rash things, such as blindly blaming others, or establishing heavy-handed punishments in a haphazard way.
Phase 2: cope
The second phase is what we do when the virus is unmistakeably there. What measures will government take? How draconic will enforcement be? How do we deal with intakes, with intensive care, with family goodbyes? Which social and economic activities will still be allowed? Across Europe, we see similar epidemiology and measures, but different tone. My family in France needs a pretext written on a formal letter to go out of doors. I can freely go shopping or roam the forest, as long as I promise to keep one and a half metre between me and the next person.
Phase 3: exit strategy
The third phase is preparing for what comes after the first virus attack. As long as no vaccine is found, there are no other alternatives than either social distancing or letting the virus have its way. How will countries mix these two treatments across ages, regions, professions, and weeks? What weight will they give to the economic conditions of people hit not by the disease but by the measures? This pandemic may rage on for well over a year. If we flatten the curve, we lengthen it as well.
Decision making under stress
For talking about coronavirus, the seminal work on decision making under stress by Janis & Mann can serve. These authors found that people can respond to a threat in three ways: defensive avoidance, vigilance, and hypervigilance.
Defensive avoidance amounts to denying the danger. An example of defensive avoidance is Trump’s initial reaction to corona: ‘It’s a hoax’, or Bolsonaro’s “I am a healthy man and will not get it”. Both leaders made their countries lose time in the defence against coronavirus, but may have catered for large parts of their electorate.
An example of hypervigilance is Trump’s closing of the borders to travellers from mainland Europe, or Putin’s seven years of prison for offenders of the lockdown. These measures serve symbolic aims of showing leadership, but do not help curb the virus. Blaming is often a part of hypervigilance.
Vigilance is the middle way and the proper attitude. An example of vigilance is listening to experts, getting the dynamics of epidemics between our ears, and responding accordingly with clear guidelines. Another example is reasoned international collaboration.
It is in our nature to stick with our group in bad times. In good times we quarrel for dominance, or leave our group to found a new one. A shared fate such as coronavirus increases our feelings of solidarity and our group motivation. This feels good. Only, who are ‘our group’?
We may resort to scapegoating. A shared threat makes us search for strong leadership, and one strategy for an aspiring leader is to say “Follow me. I know what is threatening us. It this-and-this out-group.” Trump’s “Chinese virus” was such a form of out-group scapegoating. His closing the borders for European flights (but not British) was another one. Again, although the measure was epidemiologically nonsensical, he may have catered for his electorate: countries get leaders that fit their culture.
Both leaders and followers define group boundaries more sharply in times of crisis. Believers in Iran and Israel continued to congregate, considering their religious community to be their in-group, asking help from God. National leaders talk to their country’s populations: “Stick with me and we’ll beat the threat”.
Obviously, from a biological standpoint, the coronavirus considers all human beings – and an unknown number of other mammals – equally eligible as its home, regardless of religion or nationality. Our strategy as humans should be to realise this, and act accordingly. In this respect at least, coronavirus resembles climate change: we are all in the same boat. Look at https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus, and you see very similar curves in different countries.
While we share one boat, we all have our separate cultural cabin. We tend to stick to the unwritten rules of our culture. This makes societies respond in different ways to the virus.
I should add here, that culture is by no means the only influence. We also have historic coincidences: who happens to be in power? How rich, how young, how numerous is the population? What I say in this blog is about likelihood, illustrated with anecdotes. The future can be different.
Let us make a brief tour of the Hofstede / Minkov dimensions of culture (World maps of culture are here; you could open them in a new window: https://geerthofstede.com/.../.../. Official dimension score values for countries can be found on https://geerthofstede.com/.../.../).
Individualism vs collectivism
In an individualistic society, such as Anglo countries or the Netherlands, people behave like atoms in a gas. They can freely choose whether to group or to separate. Society could respond very quickly to a change in external factors. In the USA, Republicans and Democrats have quickly buried their feuds to fight coronavirus. This will last as long as the crisis.
In a collectivistic society, people are more like atoms in a crystal. What they do, reflects their role in society. Whatever the external circumstances, they organise themselves in groups that tend to stick together for life. Getting out of role can be severely shamed or even punished. This happened for the first Chinese medical doctor who diagnosed corona in 2019.
A society of small power distance has a strong sense of mutual obligation between all its members. Citizens are likely, in these cultures, to do as their leaders ask. They are used to exerting community duties. Austria, one of the most egalitarian countries in the world, is now releasing its lockdown, opening its small enterprises again, as a sign of mutual assistance.
A society of large power distance has no such unwritten social contract. Might makes right. Authorities will neglect large parts of their populations, possibly repress them forcibly as Filipino president Duterte is doing, and these unfortunate have-nots will expect nothing different. Leaders are also likely to present a desirable picture rather than a truthful one, and subordinates to report desirable data rather than truthful ones.
In a masculine society, the use of force and big words is taken to be a sign of status. Police could also be violent. There could be hypervigilance in corona response. In times of corona, people are likely to accept and endorse a degree of state violence. It would make them feel safer. Massive disinfecting of public spaces, ineffective but showing muscle, happens in masculine cultures. Boris Johnson, a few weeks ago before he was diagnosed with COVID-19, gave some muscular talk about “sending the virus packing”. Trump twittered about a “very big New Deal”, a kind of recovery programme for the country.
In feminine societies, the use of force is not seen as a good thing. Pressure should be soft, and good intentions are stressed. The maximum punishment for breaking the corona social distancing rules in my country, the Netherlands, is a € 400 fine. Our president has not used the word ‘war’ for talking about our efforts to suppress the pandemic. Each week he issues a press conference with praise for good behaviour, and advice. Apps for tracking and tracing are voluntary and likely to remain so.
Uncertainty avoidance is about stress in the face of the unknown. I do not have data on detergent sales, but I bet that the correlation between its usage and uncertainty avoidance found by de Mooij (2019) is even sharper in times of an epidemic. Rituals of separation and cleaning are stronger in uncertainty avoiding societies. If a culture is both masculine and uncertainty avoiding, response to a crisis is likely to strongly push towards authoritarianism. Hungarian Orbán is an example, seizing his opportunity.
In uncertainty tolerant societies, there could be a risk of carelessness. States are likely to talk of letting the virus run its course, so that life can go on as normal. This has been the line in the Netherlands, UK and Sweden, for instance, although in the former two cases, the virus quickly forced the country into more severe measures. Still, the Dutch and English go out of doors in their numbers, enjoying the fine spring weather. Swedish children still go to school.
The countries that were fastest in curbing the pandemic: Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, all have long-term oriented cultures. These countries and their citizens are ever preparing for uncertain events that may happen. They are used to epidemics spreading from the Chinese mainland. Citizens are used to adapting their behaviour too, rather than sticking to fixed form. China itself, also long-term oriented, also responded very rapidly after the initial cover-up.
Many European countries are also long-term oriented. They are likely to have ample hospital capacity, and savings. How they distribute assets is another matter, having to do e.g. with power distance.
Short-term oriented countries are more likely to react with emotion, either defensive avoidance or hypervigilance. This emotion could also be positive, with acts of defiance and solidarity.
Indulgent societies are those in which people feel that life is good and it’s okay to feel that way. If forced to keep social distance, they will be quick to make songs and jokes about it, and turn it into a fun event as much as possible.
In restrained societies, the idea is that life is hard, and this is normal. People will accept the misery of social distancing as inevitable. They are more likely to accept the utter misery of not being able to say goodbye to family members about to die.
A Gestalt made of six dimensions
This walk through the dimensions was, of course, one of the simplifications my readers know from me. In reality these dimensions of culture do not exist. They are nothing more than ways to make differences between societies visible and understandable. Also, countries have configurations in which dimensions occur together, and I neglected that in this blog.
COVID-19 in the Netherlands
Let me give you one example. My country of the Netherlands is culturally individualistic, feminine, long-term oriented and indulgent. This makes us tend to organize everything like a village market, in mutual consultation between all. In the case of COVID-19, seeing that the chance of dying from the disease climbs steeply with age, we have evolved a practice where doctors consult with people ahead of time about whether they wish to be taken to intensive care when the need arises. In intensive care they could lie for three weeks with no means of communication, and die without being able to say farewell. The decision is made in consultation with patients and their families. Many Dutch think it is humane and wise for the patients: When you are old, how you die may be more important than when. There is also an altruistic side: it saves hospital capacity for young people. People in other cultures might think it cruel, amounting to murder of elderly people. We all like to think that our group is the best.
In the case of coronavirus, our tour across cultures so far seems to indicate that long-term orientation is an important cultural characteristic that helps a society be prepared, and be vigilant rather than denying the threat or overreacting.
The virus attack is not over yet though. After the coping phase we can expect a long tail of resurgences of the disease, especially in countries that have not achieved herd immunity. Poor countries that cannot afford social distancing will probably have a fast and deadly flare-up of the disease; hopefully it will spare younger populations and not resurge after a first unchecked wave. Poorer communities might be used to infectious diseases, by the way, and less perturbed by COVID-19 than richer ones. We rich have become used to being quasi-invulnerable.
The aftermath will be long enough to become intensely politicized, with governments needing to cater for the anxieties of their constituencies. As Trump said, the cure should not be worse than the disease. This is a political question though; every society will answer it differently. Will we prioritize children, homeless people, apparatchiks, businesses, schools? As the pandemic progresses, culture will become ever more important in its management.
My personal view is that we badly need international collaboration and responsible leadership to cope with the unexpected and unpleasant developments that lie ahead. This is not just important for COVID-19. The current pandemic attacks mainly the elderly and unhealthy. It could all be just a rehearsal for a far more serious pandemic, if we resume our way of life as if nothing had happened. It could also be a wake-up call that gives us the momentum to cure other worldwide ills as well; I’m thinking of climate change in particular, alongside poverty and illiteracy.
I am actually optimistic. Things are in a bad way, many people suffer; but humanity is learning and adapting. Look on the bright side, too. International solidarity receives a boost. Many lives of asthma patients may be spared because of the corona pandemic. In just a few weeks it has made air cleaner and people more conscious of what really matters. It has made birds audible and stars visible again.
Janis, Irving L., & Mann, Leon (1977). Decision making: A psychological analysis of conflict, choice, and commitment. Free Press.
Mooij, Marieke de (2019) Consumer Behavior and Culture: Consequences for Global Marketing and Advertising. Sage.