How US-American cultural values are exposed during the COVID-19 season

Having lived in ten countries and five U.S. states, our coach Megan Norton describes herself as a Global Nomad and Adult Third Culture Kid. COVID-19 has forced her to stay longer than anticipated in a community where she is now observing how certain cultural values are exposed in this time of crisis.

Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

I’m a non-native Michigander. And yet, this is home to me during this season and has been a place I’ve considered to be “from” for the past two years. I am a “Global Nomad”/ “Adult Third Culture Kid” in having lived in ten countries and five U.S. States over the past 30 years. As a digital nomad as well, I have the opportunity to work office-free and am finding it to be a new and interesting “normal” to work from “home” in my house in Muskegon county, Michigan.

In being instructed to “shelter-in-place,” I’m learning more and more about what it means to be a “place-maker,” “home-maker”, and to be “from” here. I’m learning more about the culture of this location and perhaps in having a slower and more predictable daily routine, you are observing the culture of your community in new and interesting ways, too. I see the cultural values of the U.S. – and this community – exposed during this COVID-19 season.

Values Exposed: Independence and Collectivism

As a “Global Nomad,” I’ve experienced many cultures in different communities. To categorize my experiences broadly, they fit into either “independent” communities or “collectivist” communities. On a “collectivist” versus “independent” community spectrum, I’ve observed that U.S. Americans skew to be made up of “independent” communities in the way they value space, privacy, and the freedom in deciding who they establish relationships with, for how long, and when. Collectivist communities, in contrast, tend to value and prioritize relationships built on unquestionable loyalty and trust that is given up front and liberally.

How I see this U.S. independent cultural value tendency shifting in a very concrete way is when community members ask one another, “How are you?” and then lean in for a conversation, rather than walk away after the average, “Good” reply. Typically, the “Hello, how are you?” greeting is one of politeness with the expectation the respondent will say, “Fine, thanks.” And that’s the end of the exchange. However, in this season, the “How are you” inquiry leaves space for everyone to provide a little more context to their situation and feelings. There seems to be a shift in both offering and providing more trust up front to hold one another’s’ feelings with care and with grace.

Another way a skew to collectivism is how we share resources and encourage “stay at home” best (and creative!) practices. For example: the town in which I’m living in gave community members instruction to display their White Lake “Anchor” worksheet in home or at work place windows to demonstrate “lockdown” solidarity. The rally for respect and compliance for store hours to shift to accommodate different age groups communicates our desire to keep our community members safe when in public. We are learning what stronger community ties and loyalty looks like and feels like. Let’s continue to be mindful and sensitive to what our community needs right now. Let’s highlight the ways we are finding to lean into interdependence: the union of our self-reliance and community-reliance.

Values Exposed: Uncertainty Avoidance and Comfortable with Ambiguity

Based on my experiences in living and working in other countries, I tend to believe that U.S. Americans are high risk-takers compared to other cultures comfort levels with risk-taking when outcomes are unpredictable. There tends to be a “carpe diem” value in the way we encourage our students, children, and friends to take pride in “reaching for the stars,” going after dream jobs, jumping off a higher cliff into the ocean, and to compete for real and/or perceived opportunities. Along with these risks is the ability to hold space for the ambiguity of whether the possibilities become actual realities. There isn’t an avoidance to the values of ambition and “success”.

In the COVID-19 season context, it seems that U.S. Americans are uniformly leaning into the ambiguity of the “shelter-in-place” ordinance length, committing to the uncertainty of how long this new “normal” will dictate our work and personal schedules, and arising to the challenge of creating connections and goals through virtual platforms and endorsements. We are committed to the brands and stores that reinforce their commitment to deliver products and services. We see this commitment highlighted in advertisements; for example, have you seen the car TV advertisements?! Very clever in shaping their “care” for us. I kind of want to buy a Lexus now as they say they’re more in the people business than car one. We celebrate successful supply chain management and delivery to stores (toilet paper, anyone?) which shows that we have a system that works in times of “crisis”.

How we communicate in times of uncertainty also speaks into the values of prioritizing more information over minimal information. Media circulates statistics and we re-share on social media platforms. We’re certain of the weight of this pandemic, acknowledge it’s effects, and are action-oriented in mitigating the ripples it may have on our communities’ micro and macro economies. Because we’re both confident and used to leaning into our ability to navigate ambiguity, we may emerge more well-adjusted to shift expectations and action plans when step-by-step actions plans are formulated, vetted, and implemented across sectors.

Values Exposed: Indulgence and Restraint

Toilet paper shelves, people. What else could more definitively and accurately expose our U.S. American tendency of indulgence? Again, exposing our value of independence and self-care prioritized over community-care, the swiping of products in shopping cart hoarding fashion showcases the U.S. American value of instant gratification and self-interest.

And yet, there seems to be a shift on the spectrum of skewing towards a value tendency of restraint. In some of the other cultures in which I’ve lived, community members have exercised strict societal norms that embody restraint in the way they buy provision for a week rather than for a month or in the way they consider others’ needs before their own. This is played out also in the way others’ pleasure is prioritized above one’s own.

During this season I’ve seen in my community that honoring people’s space, offering to help buy groceries for the elderly, and doing acts of service for neighbors and community members skew the values of indulging independence toward a collectivist responsibility to care for the needs of others.

Values Exposed: Power and Privilege

While we respect the authority and power of those in Washington D.C. and the figures in elected office positions in our State capitals, we see a rise in the flattening of the power held “at the top.” The authority figures are not the only influencers, gate-keepers, and decision-makers. The power to affect change, influence perception, and to expose information has always resided with “the people” in the U.S. with the value “for the people” drive.

In the times of COVID-19, there are interesting grass-root movements, creative community initiatives, and individual actions that are gaining traction and exposure in how to serve the marginalized community, the undocumented person, the displaced international student, the unemployed, and the working single parent now turned homeroom teacher. The power to understand how privilege operates in this country and to respond in a way that meets the needs of the ones more or less privileged is a freedom and opportunity – and most importantly: a responsibility – we have for this country.

Sometimes I think about what my experience during this season would feel like if I were in another country as a U.S. citizen. I think I would feel less empowered to affect change the way I feel I here in my current community and my sense of self-efficacy wouldn’t produce the drive I have in this place, space, and time to look for opportunities to serve others. I don’t think I would have the capacity for empathy and the promise of hope that I lean into to help me understand my power and privilege here in the U.S.

And so, as I am forced to stay here longer than I anticipated for this year, I am encouraged to see the sense of curiosity and drive to connect that this community has rallied to commit to during this season. The unique ways to see our culture through the lens of someone in a different position than us can expose new ways we’ll be aware of who is in this community and create lasting change in the way we want to remain connected and compassionate for one another.

Megan Norton

Megan Norton

Certified intercultural dialogue facilitator with work experience in the United States and in Central Europe. Educated in Greece, Israel, Japan, Germany, South Korea, South Africa, and the United States. Academic researcher specializing in Adult Third Culture Kid identity, transnational higher education and its influence on intercultural relations, expatriate relocation and (re)entry, and university international student programming. West Michigan Photographer (IG: @megan_in_michigan). Blogger at www.adultthirdculturekid.com

Languages: English