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  • Writer's pictureBen Capell

Applying cross-cultural lenses to COVID 19 situations

Many are familiar with cultural differences such as individualism vs. collectivism, risk-taking vs. risk avoidance, or hierarchy vs. egalitarianism (high low power distance). These cultural differences impact the way we deal with a multitude of situations, including, of course, how we may respond to COVID-19 circumstances.  

Below is a brief example of how cultural differences are likely to impact the way we approach contemporary Pandemic-related dilemmas or challenges.  

As you go through the mini-scernarios, you can reflect on how you will position yourself on the continuum of options that would run between the two responses I provide. Will you tend to take risks or avoid them? Wear a mask primary for keeping your self safe, or do you wear it as your obligation towards the society?

Do you follow regulations very strictly, or are you ready to apply some flexibility when believing it's the right thing to do?

Of course, like in other cross cultural situations, some options that may feel "wrong" from one cultural perspective, could be considered entirely appropriate from another. When leading a global team or when operating across cultures, it is therefore important to understand the "why" behind the other's behavior and find the best strategy for successfully managing the situation or challenge. Options could be deciding to adapt to your counterpart's culture, co-design with them a new approach, use different cultural options for different circumstances, or help others to adapt to your own formula. 

Direct vs. Indirect Communication St


You are feeling uncomfortable as one of your peers is not wearing a mask at the office.

You will:

  • Tell them clearly to put their mask on

  • Give them ‘a look’ or ask HR to approach them

Universalism vs. Particularism (“case by case”)

Your government has issued social distancing regulations, such as avoiding visiting friends and family. You will tend to:

  • Always follow the rules (regardless of the circumstances)

  • Internalize them as important guidelines but take the liberty to apply your judgment e.g., visit your best friend who you know is feeling lonely (as long as you both wear masks and keep a safe distance.)

Collectivism vs. Individualism  

The best way to deal with the Pandemic

is when:

  • Each person is considered responsible for protecting the safety/health of their group

  • Each person is owning the responsibility for keeping themselves safe/healthy

Risk-Taking vs. Risk Avoidance (Certain


You need to implement changes in your business due to the new market conditions.

While always safeguarding the health of your staff and customers: 

  • You go ahead and experiment with new services and offerings, recognizing that as some decisions are probably not perfect, you will need to modify them along the way

  • You invest time and efforts to get it right before making any decisions, e.g., research competition and reports, survey opinions, take gradual steps, etc

Hierarchical vs. Egalitarian (Power Distance)

Your preferred approach for responding to COVID 19 related business challenges, is:

  • CEO consults with senior managers, makes a decision and cascade down the new guidelines to the rest of the organization

  • Employees at different levels form ‘think tanks’ and come up with solutions/ recommendations to be later agreed on and implemented.  

I would like to close with an anecdote: A couple of months ago, I traveled from Hong Kong to Israel to spend some time closer to my parents during these times. The differences between Israel to Hong Kong when it comes to dealing with the Pandemic were quite massive. In Hong Kong, already since mid-January, practically everyone started wearing a mask. This behavior is related to the harrowing experience of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which resulted in the terrible count of 300 deaths, combined with a strong sense of collectiveness when it comes to dealing with such health threats.

In Israel, however, there was little awareness of the importance of wearing a mask as the country has no recent epidemic history.  Although the numbers of cases increased daily, I still found myself in various situations where I needed to remind people to wear a mask next to me, for example, when shopping at their store. Anyone who worked with Israelis will be quick to tell you that they are extremely straightforward, very personal, and tend to find their ways around rules (what makes them also very innovative). Asking people softly to follow the rules got me mixed results. After a few trials and errors, I learned that the best approach would be to adapt to the local clear in my request, make it personal and avoid referring to the "rules" as an excuse. People quickly responded, put their mask on, and I got my small business done.

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