COVID-19: On The Reality Of Just How Different We Are

The fact that inclusion specialists, intercultural trainers and professionals educated in intercultural competence have long emphasized: that we are not the same, has now become more than visible for literally everyone literally everywhere.

After the first big shock hopefully having subsided, and as we are starting to get adjusted to this new lifestyle of spring 2020, I think the time and perfect opportunity have come to look at the bigger picture and reflect. Countless issues and problems demand discussing and re-evaluating now, from societal to individual ones, and they are all pressing, relevant and important. If we look at the better side of social media, we will see how people are indeed trying to have a discussion on these matters – with more or less success, but maybe at this stage the important thing is to get those questions out there: what have we done wrong, what should we change in our lifestyle, what will definitely change in our lifestyle whether we like it or not, etc.

There’s no need to resolve everything right now – contrary to the ever growing productivity trend that suggests now is the time to create your big work of art, to reflect on your life, to make everything right… no pressure though, right? I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. So, as I was saying, there is no need to try and fix everything right now, but it is certainly a good time to raise the relevant questions. And what I want to do now is raise some of them, and do this from the perspective of what we here at crossculture2go are invested in: intercultural compentece and intercultural communication.

The fact that inclusion specialists, intercultural trainers and professionals educated in intercultural competence have long emphasized: that we are not the same, has now become more than visible for literally everyone literally everywhere. Maybe this crisis will help in recognizing just how false and even damaging the trend of “we are not different” is. Saying that we are not different doesn’t make us tolerant, but rather ignorant, which then directly leads to intolerance in the long run. The premise of tolerance is precisely the acknowledgment of differences and this is just as true for individuals as it is for societies. And over the past few weeks we had the chance to see just how different each nation is.

The Balconies Of Italy And Public Masses Of Romania

One or two weeks ago everyone was watching videos of locked down Italians singing on their balconies, and Italian stereotypes peaked in conversations. People were talking about the Italian spirit, and of course there were the discussions about how this exact spirit led them to what happened, because “Italians can’t be forced inside, they just can’t”. I’m wondering where all the politically correct narratives have gone at this point. You know, the ones that state how there are no stereotypes, and it’s crucial not to identify individuals with their nationality and all that. Then there were the funny memes which at one point I have to admit, had me in tears from laughing: the ones comparing Italians and Germans during lockdown, portraying the former dancing and singing, and the latter very silent, and starting to shout at the moment someone tried to do the same as Italians on their balcony.

Then there were the Romanians, who even though have closed all their schools, cafes, shops, and everything, have put off closing churches for as long as they could – and let me tell you, often more people are gathered in a Romanian church, than in a Romanian cafe. From outside this might look absurd, but this is just how it is: the very base of the Romanian identity more often than not is religion, and no one traveling to Romania should be surprised at the sight of people crossing themselves upon seeing a church from the bus or the street. You can’t just take the church away from Romanians from one day to the next, if you don’t want some sort of uprising, and authorities know that. But they had to close churches eventually, and when they did, nothing surprising happened: priests began holding masses on the street, giving communion with the same spoon to everyone right in the middle of the pandemic. Other countries’ news were full of this, but here in Romania we were not at all surprised. This is just how it is. If something is deeply ingrained in the collective thinking of a nation, then you cannot “tame” it from one day to another.

Rules And Authority

After seeing what was happening in Italy, Romania was one of the first countries, if not the first in Europe to close down its schools and start giving out military orders regarding lockdown and quarantine. A couple of weeks back I was shocked, and during a conversation I said “how come Romania does this, it’s so unlike them to be this prepared and thorough”, to which I got the response: “This only makes sense, as Romanians need strict rules and the only thing they are afraid of is authority”.

This got me thinking, and I have to say that I agree. Of course there is the fact that hundreds of thousands of Romanians started flowing back in the country when the Italian situation got out of hand, which made all these restrictions necessary from a very early stage. But besides this, it is very true that Romanian people need a strong authority, and threats even, in order to comply. So the fees for being outside are extremely high, and the police and the army is stopping the cars one by one, at least this is what I see from my window.

So there may be a lot of truth in the saying that Germans for example don’t need these kind of strict rules and orders, because they will more likely act in a disciplined manner on their own. From an intercultural perspective, now is a great time to look around and see how different countries use and respond to authority. It says a lot about  a nation, and it’s certainly true, because people are their most authentic self during a time of crisis.

Dealing With The Crisis

Another thing we can learn about different cultures during this time, is how each of them deals with a critical situation. Are the authorities focusing more on the short or long term goals? Of course the nr. 1 task everywhere is to keep people safe. But it’s interesting to see how each country deals with the ‘what next?” question, as this reflects another culturally defined attitude.

Another thing we can see is how each country relates to taking risks, and what the priorities are in politics for example. Critical situations and fear bring out the most authentic self in each of us, and this is also true on a higher scale. Leaders all around the world have to make new decisions every day, decisions that best reflect their countries’ interests, while knowing their nation, and the collective mentality in the country and adapting these decisions to them. As each day passes, the illusion of people around the world being the same fades more and more, leaving us with the realization that we are different, and hopefully with the realization that this is neither good or bad. Being different is just a fact, and facts are neither “good” or “bad”, just like the numbers, which are not divided by “good numbers” and “evil numbers”. They are just numbers, and this is good news: the fact that not everything has to be looked at from the prism of good or bad is extremely liberating.

Saying “embrace our differences” is sometimes just as much of a cliché as saying that we are no different. How about simply stop denying something factual and obvious, and move on to a more grounded lifestyle, more in touch with our everyday reality?

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

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