COVID-19: Our Current Individual Challenges Defined By Culture

In our previous article we discussed how each society has its very own way of coping. Now we want to focus on the individual aspects of coping with an entirely unknown situation that seemingly found us out of nowhere.

This time is all about coping with an entirely unknown situation that seemingly found us out of nowhere. No matter where you live, your day to day life has probably been turned upside down, and your perfectly functioning routines have vanished. This is what we all have in common, and almost all around the world we are facing the very same challenges. Yet the way we perceive them and cope with them, vary greatly, and this has a lot to do with our cultural background.

In our previous article “On the reality of just how different we are” we discussed about the cultural differences in how each country’s authorities deal with the crisis, and we illustrated how each society has its very own way of coping, which is deeply set in its culture. Now we want to focus on the individual aspects of the covid everydays. Because of course, each one of us is a special and unique snowflake, which means we all have our different difficulties and means of coping, but I cannot stress this enough: a big part of these is written in our cultural background.

And this part of our personalities, that is defined by our culture, is becoming clearly visible during these weeks. And they are there, with us, all the time, not just in times of crisis. But now it’s easier to spot them, because all of us are facing the same issue, yet our responses are so very different. Let’s use some time to focus on our cultural self-awareness, a skill that is here to help us in the long run.

Here are 5 of the most pressing personal issues of the new routine imposed by Covid, and here’s what our culture has to say about them:

Letting Go Of Control

On a personal level this might be the most important right now. It’s something that we get told every day, of course: just let go, you can’t control what will happen, etc. Well, now we get to practice it every day.

Not knowing when you will be able to get back to work, when your children will go back to school, what about their exams, what about your salary, and so on and so forth, all this leaves you with no other option but letting go, otherwise you just enter the infinite stress-loop. But how easily you let go is not only defined by your personality, but also by the culture you belong to.

If you were brought up in a country where thorough planning and keeping things under control are highly valued, then you might find it harder to suddenly just lean back and say “come what may”. It also has to do with how you were thought to deal with the unknown: once again, if you grew up in a country where society as a whole does its best to avoid the unknown, and be thoroughly prepared for all possible scenarios, then you are likely to feel more frustrated by all this uncertainty surrounding you right now. It’s not something you can change overnight, but it helps if you are aware of it. Learning about Hofstede’s uncertainty avoidance index will give you valuable insight!

How You Respond To Authority

Many countries have implemented serious rules and restrictions regarding what citizens are and are not allowed to do. In some places these restrictions are enhanced with the help of the military, which means people woke up one day to seeing soldiers on the streets, stopping cars and pedestrians. Different cultures have different attitudes towards authority, and this is not only visible now by how authorities of each country act now, but also by how individuals react to restrictions and new rules.

In countries where people are used to strictly following the rules at all times, these new restrictions might be easier to deal with than in countries where people have a “yes, rules, buuut…” mentality. If you feel unusually anxious because of having all these new rules, keep in mind that it also might be somewhat cultural, and most probably it’s not just you, but everyone else too.

Family Roles

Now this is something that can greatly vary from country to country, but they all have something in common: it’s very unusual that both parents and the children are at home all day. This is a highly unusual and unexpected task for parents, and even though fast adjustment is needed, it may take a while until it all gets sorted out.

Family roles are deeply cultural, and while in the everydays most families have a set routine, with the new situation everything needs to be built up from scratch. For example, in countries where gender roles are clearly separated, families might face new difficulties. If the everydays consist of the husband going to work and the wife staying home with the kids and taking care of the household, then this new situation of both of them being home might feel chaotic at first for everyone involved.

In Scandinavian countries, for example, it can be easier because there it is more usual for the husband to stay at home with the kids as well, so the roles are more easily exchangeable, and life itself might feel more flexible right now.

Your Response To The Situation

Our individual response to this new lifestyle is also defined by culture to some extent. Our priorities, and the fears we have are all rooted in our cultural background just as much as in our personality traits.

If the thing you find hardest is taking a break from work, that might not only be the workaholic in you talking. In Western performance-oriented cultures people are used to measure the worth of their time by the number of things accomplished. If you have been productive, then you didn’t waste your day, right?

Now this lockdown forces us to re-evaluate our views on productivity. If you have a job which you can’t do from home, and you are forced to stay home, without even working or taking on home office, and you live in a country where performance is everything, then you might find it hard not to focus on the fact that you are currently “doing nothing”. A little mindfulness will go a long way in helping you deal with this “nothing”. And also if you reflect on the fact that this is likely to be something you were brought up in, and maybe not your personally built up set of values, that may also help in relieving anxiety.

Collective Vs Individual Values

Social distancing is especially hard for people from collectivistic countries. If you live in a country where group values are positioned much above the individual ones, then probably not being able to be around your extended family and friends, not being physically there to help them, to be physically together in this, might be the hardest for you. This is once again something you can’t just change overnight because of new rules and restrictions. Of course, you can act accordingly, but that won’t take the difficulty of distancing away.

And now with Easter, people in collectivistic countries had to level-up on their accepting, as most probably there were no big family lunches and gatherings. For me here in Romania this was one of the hardest parts of the lockdown so far, accepting that we won’t hold the Easter family lunch at my grandmother, with my mom, sister, uncle and cousins all there. I love this lunch, it’s one of my favourite events during the year along with the big Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas day lunch. It’s our routine, it’s the thing that never changes, no matter what happens, and yet now it did. Which is partly a good thing, because let’s be honest: it will eventually change. In my mind I know it, and I am trying to accept the fact that people don’t live forever, not even one’s close family, but I try to pretend like this isn’t an issue. It was the first time ever in my life that we didn’t have the big Easter lunch, and it was strange, and it made me think about how things can change from one moment to another and it’s only up to me how I react to any sudden changes.

But staying close to our subject: people brought up in collectivistic countries may find this forced distancing one of the most, if not the most challenging part of the covid-induced lifestyle, and this is deeply cultural. One thing that maybe helps, even if just a little, is knowing that we really are in this together. Everyone is in it, so after all, it’s an experience all of us share, and for me knowing this makes it so much easier.

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

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