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SEEARE: The influence of culture in crisis response

Case Study of COVID-19

The differences between Asian and Western cultures

Let’s face it: it would be impossible to talk about all the cultures of the world in a single article. Instead, we will focus on two broad groups: what we might refer to as “Asian culture” and “Western culture.” While we shouldn’t assume either is monolithic – every country, every city, every family has its differences – this article will look at how their traditional generalities relate to the big picture of management and how they adapt to crisis situations.

Asian culture and the role of the collective

When it comes to Asian culture, perhaps its most well-known aspect is the idea of the “collective” – a community-focused mindset that places the individual as secondary to the group. Take the example of Singapore. While it is a vibrant melding of East and West, its underlying roots are still culturally Asian. From a young age, many children are raised with the mindset that the “collective” – the family at first, but later the nation as a whole – is of focal importance. 

Perhaps the best way to describe this is to see it as a “we” mentality, where family members band together, trusting that if they take care of the collective then the collective will take care of them. In Singapore during this COVID-19 outbreak, for example, the social media hashtag #SGUnited has become a focal point, used to drive collective responsibility and a feeling “we’re all in it together.”

Typically when a culturally-Asian child raises individual needs that are not aligned with the family, they are liable to be “corrected.” Individual needs, while not necessarily dissuaded, are often brought in line with that of the group. Taken to the ultimate conclusion, individual desires may be seen as unhelpful, egotistical or even damaging. Respect for elders is encouraged, whose authority is seen as a font of wisdom.

The shadow side of the collective “we” mentality is that, unlike in many Western societies, this can result in more passive-aggressiveness. People will not necessarily challenge the collective openly, even if they feel the group is not taking an interest in or defending their needs.

The importance of trust as a pivot point

So long as there is trust in authority or the group, people will be inclined to follow its demands, beginning with family and education, then continuing into adulthood and the workplace. Asian management methods often focus on hierarchical structures; promotion may be by age or seniority, with orders passed through chains of command. When orders appear to no longer be applicable or have already been tried, it can take a longer time for people to speak up or challenge their superior.

While examples of times when people in Asia followed an authority figures’ orders, even when they were muddled or inaccurate, are common in Asian history, there are copious cases where people, particularly collectively, spoke up when they felt their superiors’ actions were not good for the collective or the “greater good.” Examples during this COVID-19 turmoil would be the response of some Thai people towards the monarchy or recently the questions raised by some in the way Singapore handled the foreign workers' situation in the dormitories causing a sudden peak in the number of infected, while Singapore took the necessary actions for prompt remedy. 

Western culture and the role of the individual

At the other end of the spectrum, the so-called “Western” mindset is historically very different from the stereotypical Asian one. Using Europe as an example, the West is the birthplace of many individualistic theories, where philosophical thinkers developed a mindset based on individual human rights. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” was not just rationalising existence but a rallying cry that humans can affirm the knowledge of themselves because their existence can’t be denied. 

From a Western context, individuals are raised to believe that not only do their opinions matter but that certain rights and liberties must be protected from being taken away. If an authority figure or collective threatens or tries to remove your rights you have an equal right to protect yourself, even against the system. In France, for example, such a belief was enshrined in its 1790s revolution, still valid as a symbol nowadays. In England, the ancient constitution of rights to defend against royal overreach, a text known as the Magna Carta, offered its own guarantees. 

To many in the West individual rights are not merely respected but sacrosanct, with things like the right to privacy sometimes even held above the collective good. A recent COVID-19 example of such is the debate about tracing apps. Not that this means Western culture believes in the individual above all else, however. No society, certainly no culture or civilization, would be able to grow or flourish if there was no collective responsibility. Western culture still has a sense of belonging to a group, but it is somewhat different from the Asian idea of the “we.”

One popular phrase that underpins the idea of Western rights is that “my freedom stops where your freedom starts” – literally that an individual’s rights extend to the point that they infringe on someone else’s. Recognizing where your rights end and another person’s begin is an important part of life – but the collective “we” as an entity, as a thing in itself, is not as present as in Asian society. Western youth are typically raised with the idea it is healthy to raise questions and (reasonably) challenge teachers. Asking questions is not considered rude but a means of stimulating debate and ideas, finding new means of problem-solving – and this filters into the Western style of corporate leadership and employment. In many work environments, it is fine to push new ideas or challenge a manager, so long as the input is respectful and cogent to the issue at hand.

The dark side of the Western cultural system, however, comes when a person feels constrained or believes their personal needs are being ignored. Often their first response is to challenge the opposing side for neglecting their needs or rights, irrespective of other people’s requirements. Often that response is direct and vocal, sometimes even resulting in direct action to remedy the perceived individual wrongdoing. Examples of this might include going outside the chain of command or ignoring the consensus opinion in order to “force” a change in policy. It has been the case lately in the United States of America with the anti-lockdown protests

Again, the importance of trust as a pivot point

While trust in higher authority is often deeply ingrained in traditional Asian culture, it is rarely so entrenched in the Western mindset. When things go wrong with that trust, helped by a Western history of protesting against inequalities and a desire to protect one’s rights, the possibility of people outright refusing to restrain themselves “for the greater good” becomes more likely.

Although all political systems are about clashes of personality and platforms, this can also be readily seen in Western-style politics. Here democracy can often spill into voting for leaders who offer what “I” as an individual voter wants, rather than choosing leaders who only give a little – but spread it between what every voter needs. 

This split along party lines can be especially serious during a crisis. Returning to the COVID-19 outbreak affecting the globe at time of writing, Italy has been one of the most badly affected of the world’s countries, followed closely by Spain and France. 

Yet despite being part of the collective European Union (or EU, designed to safeguard its members’ security and economies) and knowing for months of the rising tide of infections, each of these countries found themselves underprepared. From an outside perspective it seemed there was dissent in the ranks of the EU over when and how to work together.

Then, as cases spread into their own nations, European nations demonstrated the kind of individualistically-focused opinions we talked about earlier. Questions were asked about how to protect individual rights during a lock-down – how could collective protection be balanced against personal responsibility and freedoms? 

This see-saw, tipping between one side and the other, is far more public than in traditional Asian culture. When authority is not seen as taking care of the individual’s rights, rebellion becomes likely, with small or large acts of refusal to comply with that authority.

This is not unique to the West, of course; grumbling and feelings of being ignored by authority are certainly not unknown in Asia. But taking COVID-19 as an example, Asian responses to individual rights being temporarily removed have proven more muted. Many Chinese citizens in the stricken city of Wuhan agreed to be locked down to protect the virus from spreading, while in countries like Singapore people agree to download phone-apps that give away personal data allowing them to be traced in order to help the fight against the outbreak. 

In Asia, more people follow the rules, even if they don’t necessarily like them. But we should not assume that complying with orders is the same as agreeing with them or being cheerful about them. So long as the authority (be it the elders, the boss, the government, etc.) retains respect and trust, most people will follow. But when authority loses itself, then passive-aggressiveness – even a collective “we” of banded-together malcontents – is liable to follow. Silence does not always mean support, and this can have far-reaching repercussions from a work-environment perspective. “Still waters run deep,” as the saying goes, and silence in an Asian-centric workplace does not always mean people have no complaints.

Culture plays out the same within organisations

Culture plays a major role in all aspects of our life – individually, academically, corporately and collectively – and someone who is managing people from different cultures needs to take those factors into account. Just as importantly, managers shouldn’t simply look at other people’s cultures but also at their own; your own upbringing and beliefs are just as much an influence on your decision-making as those of your colleagues. It’s a holistic process.

No one culture fits all

There is no right-or-wrong when it comes to how our cultural background plays a role in our life. It is ultimately about what seems best (whichever cultural filter one looks through) to overcome the crisis and take the necessary decisions, which will suit the chosen priority. That same priority, however, consciously or not, will again be tainted by its cultural lens. COVID-19 showcases different segments (nations and organisations) following different priorities. Such decisions affect, positively or negatively, the other. 

In future, when we look back on COVID-19, it may be that the West better recognizes how collectivized coordinated bonds can be a strength. Yet putting the group before the individual can only go so far and be done for so long before people feel authority is taking them for granted. At what point will the “straw break the camel’s back,” as the old adage goes?

Likewise, in terms of leadership, no one style fits all – and if you come to a situation with your eyes open, questioning which approach best suits the problem, far more pragmatic solutions are likely to be found. 

Learning to find that perfect balance between the needs of the group and the needs of the individual isn’t easy, but recognizing cultural differences and how they affect human interactions can provide the clarity needed to overcome some of the most difficult problems at hand.

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Carina Rogerio is the Managing Director and Founder of SeeAre Pte. Ltd. She came across coaching in 2012, which propelled her lawyer career. Curious about the skills behind coaching, she attended a coaching certification course which later led her to also include mediation to her set of skills. She realised throughout her journey that her true motivation was to pay it forward and facilitate wished changes in her clients, both at the individual and organisational level. To learn more about SeeAre, visit www.seeare.co

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