“Are we going to ban all Asians from attending?” That was the question an individual planning to attend a large international conference earlier this year asked the conference organisers. Their answer was a resounding no! Would they take all necessary precautions to make sure everyone’s health and safety are top priority? Absolutely! But they knew the solution was not to prohibit an entire cultural group from participating. However, the question raised all kinds of questions about how a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic can create such panic, fear, and, worst yet, unfair biases towards an entire cultural group. In this case, Asians.
I would argue that many of us wrestle with these questions every day. Crises simply expose, and often magnify, our anxieties and negative views about other cultures. This doesn’t suggest that we don’t use common sense and follow guidelines set forth by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other health organisations. It does, however, suggest that as we engage across cultures, both domestically and internationally, we want to make sure our biases and lack of knowledge don’t get the best of us, and we engage in culturally intelligent, responsive, and helpful ways.
So how do we find the balance? Here are a few reminders and ideas for respecting all cultures – crisis or not.
Acknowledge That We Are All Connected. If nothing else, our current crisis reminds us that we live in a world in which a local event, good or bad, can quickly have a global impact. The coronavirus pandemic comes at a time when the concept of globalization is more evident than ever. There are times, like now, when the consequences of those connections can feel mostly negative. However, there are many more times when they are positive.
Late last year, my colleague and friend in the UK, Lucy Butters, and I published an article on internationalization and the need for cultural intelligence, particularly among university students. We argued that the opportunity for students to study abroad is critical in helping them see their connection with other people globally. One of the unfortunate consequences of the coronavirus pandemic has been the requirement for many students studying abroad to cut their experiences short. I’m confident we’ll recover, and students will, at some point, be back to exploring and learning in different parts of the world.
The first step in applying CQ during a crisis is acknowledging that we are all connected. In good times, celebrate it. In challenging times, seek ways to be part of a culturally intelligent solution for the greater good, not just for yourself.
Become An Ally. Many of us have heard stories about many Asian individuals with masks being verbally assaulted and physically threatened — even if they have never been to Asia themselves. In New York, one Asian man was sprayed with air freshener. Another woman was punched in the jaw. When we hear of and perhaps witness these unfortunate incidents, it makes us sad and angry. But if we claim to value and respect our fellow citizens, we must commit to doing more. We must become allies. There are several ways to demonstrate allyship. One powerful way is to take on the role of the Upstander. This is someone who sees wrongdoing and acts to combat it. This person pushes back on offensive comments or jokes. The active ally speaks up if they witness behavior or speech that is degrading, offensive, or harmful. They are not afraid to boldly explain their stance, so everyone is clear about why they are raising the issue. It’s up to us to be active and culturally intelligent allies to those on the receiving end of unfair and biased treatment and to take responsibility for making changes that will help them feel safe and valued.
Increase Your CQ Knowledge. Currently, five countries – China, Iran, South Korea, Italy, and the US — have been singled out as those most affected by the pandemic. It has been fascinating to watch the different ways in which each country and its people have dealt with the crisis. For example, in China the more guarded and high power distance culture caused the country’s leaders to take weeks to reveal and publicly discuss the virus and its severity. In the US, motivated by the individualistic cultural value, many Americans tend to be more reluctant to give up freedoms to go out to eat and travel as compared to a collectivist society that is much more likely to go with the collective norms.
CQ Knowledge is defined as an understanding of how cultures are similar or different. The approach by each of these countries is influenced by their own set of cultural values. Understanding these cultural differences can go a long way in helping you better understand “why” different cultures and cultural groups do things a certain way. This is one way to improve your CQ Knowledge. Doing so can minimize biases and ill-informed judgment about others. Practically speaking, rather than be tempted to criticize foreign and other communities within your home country for how they handle crises, focus on what they are doing well, learn from them and use that knowledge to help further combat the crisis. There are things you can do to make the best of the circumstances. Hundreds of schools around the globe have closed for the next several weeks. I’ve overheard several families talk about how they are creating a unique curriculum for their children while home. How about building in a lesson teaching them, especially your teenagers, about the pandemic through the lens of cultural intelligence? Ask them…
What have you observed about how different people and cultural groups are responding to the situation?
Do you think their responses are right or wrong? Why?
What are ways we can use our differences to work together to solve this problem?
Lastly, information is coming at us at lightning speed and from multiple sources. Be sure to process that information in a culturally intelligent way by doing fact-checking. And don’t rely on just one source of information. For example, if you want to understand what’s happening in Italy, don’t only rely on news from US sources. Read the local paper from Milan so you can hear their perspective. Imagine yourself in their position. You’ll likely gain a much deeper understanding and appreciation for how they are managing the crisis in that part of the world.
Reflect on What You’ll Do Differently After the Crisis. In the US, the rules around social distancing continue to evolve. Just last week, it was mandated in several states that groups of no more than 250 were allowed to gather in public spaces. This week that number dropped to 10. The scenario is similar in other parts of the world. It is a trying and inconvenient time for us all. But we will survive. And once we make it through this crisis and things get back to “normal,” what’s next? How will you be different? Better? What will be your CQ strategy for more effectively engaging across cultures?
I challenge you to create a Post-Coronavirus Pandemic CQ Action Plan by identifying and writing down at least two things you’ll do differently by end of this year to more intentionally engage with someone from a different cultural group.
Share your plan with a close friend or colleague and ask them to hold you accountable. As part of the process, grow your CQ knowledge about their culture and cultural values. Be honest about any potential biases you might have towards them. Commit to becoming an Ally. And, most importantly, seek their feedback on how you can grow and learn more.
None of these things guarantee that we’ll handle the next crisis perfectly, but with a little more CQ, we’ll be a little more prepared.