The Need for Cultural Awareness After Lockdown

It seems pretty clear that this pandemic is going to influence our cultures – our national cultures and our organisational cultures – in a way that we can’t easily predict.

After all, cultural shifts are typically caused by major events such as natural disasters, climate change, technological revolutions, economic collapse or resurgence; this pandemic carries a number of these characteristics.

It would be a fool’s errand, perhaps, to try to forecast and adapt around anticipated shifts; instead, the knowledge that things will potentially shift in unpredictable ways tells us to stay alert and be sure to engage with one another mindfully and with empathy so that when we reunite we can do with maximum positivity. Certainly this will be important to anybody who needs to communicate and lead across cultural barriers.

So what do we mean by ‘culture’? The simplest way to think of it is by visualising a pyramid that is divided into three horizontal bands. The bottom band is the largest, by definition. This represents universal human traits – the qualities we all posses. For example, we all feel hunger, we have an instinct for danger, we experience love and we experience loss.

The top, and, by definition the smallest band, represents our individual personalities. To an extent these are influenced by our environments and by our experiences, but we also know that we are largely born with a personality intact, shaping our tastes and our personal preferences though hard genetic coding. These differences between us are not cultural.

It is in the middle band that we find culture. This is the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes one group from another, as defined by the psychologist Geert Hofstede. The programming to which he refers are the rules and the codes of behaviour that we pass on to each other – parents to children, teachers to students, governments and community leaders to their respective populations. These codes are also written into the stories that we tell, the rituals we conduct, the people we hold up as our role models and our heroes.

This programming can give rise to both visible and also invisible differences between cultures. The visible ones we know well. We see it in the decor in homes and offices, in the different foods people eat, the clothes they wear, the music they enjoy.

Less visible are the differences in a culture’s attitude to time; ‘a long time’ might often mean something different in the US compared to China, for example. Other invisible differences might include attitudes to leadership and to hierarchy, or in the way a group adopts individual or collective processes for decision-making, or in its prizing of achievement over quality of life.

The psychologist, Elizabeth Schwartz, tracked the emotional responses that are often triggered by our encounters with these difference. After an initial honeymoon response, we often vacillate between accepting or rejecting other ways of doing things, before finally achieving a steadier-state breakthrough (or assimilation). 

Just think about how so many rejoiced in the power of video-conferencing technology during lockdown, before pockets of us started to resent how it drains us of energy, how it can invade our homes unhelpfully. This is similar to common responses to new cultures.

The art of cultural awareness is to recognise these impulses and stay-self-aware. It also lies in being mindful of the risk of conflating visible and invisible differences in cultures. For example, even though most cultures encourage good table manners in their members, what these manners actually look like when translated into behaviour can vary significantly. Some cultures use metal cutlery, others use chopsticks or their fingers (or the fingers on one hand only). In some cultures, a straight back and a quiet reserved manner adds up to good manners, whereas others would consider it cold and dis-respectful not to make a lot of noise while slurping down the feast that is being shared.

When we encounter these visible differences, it would be a mistake to assume that they point to a fundamental difference at the invisible level – at the level of the value systems that underpin codes of behaviour. This can be alienating, it can make cooperation and collaboration hard, and it is particularly regrettable as it is based on a false assumption and a failure to wipe clean the cultural lens through which we regard the world around us. But wipe it we must, and this will be particularly important after this pandemic.

In summary:

We cannot predict exactly what will change post-pandemic at the cultural level, but we know that things will be different. The onus will be upon each of us to engage with one another wholeheartedly, out listening skills and our basic human empathy fully present in order to make sure that our new togetherness will be marked, not by tensions and shock, but by positivity, optimism and shared purpose.

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