Facing the Unknown in an Era of Globalization: Insights on China and the USA Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic

Apr 20, 2020

That eerie sensation creeping into the consciousness of those living in China – both citizens and foreigners alike in late January – has now spread throughout the world like a cold hand suddenly touching your neck. 

It makes you shiver and then recoil as you shake off the wave of chill that not only shoots through your body, but your gut as well. It’s an unnerving feeling that makes you uneasy because of the fear, the uncertainty, and the growing realization that you are not in control which leaves you on the verge of panic.

My Experience in Both China and USA

Back in late January and early February sitting in my tiny 50 square meter apartment in Chengdu, the uneasiness that unsettled my soul would have turned into paralyzing fear had I not found ways to make sense of the stealthy disease that creeped its way into my neighborhood as I tracked it on a coronavirus app on my phone. 

Trying to create a routine – sleep, exercise, work, information gathering, chatting with friends via WeChat and WhatsApp on mobile phones – became a balm for the soul as I tried to make sense of what was happening. Then we had a 5.2 earthquake at midnight on February 3rd, which set off a frenzy of texts on our US Citizens of Sichuan app. It wasn’t a serious quake, but enough to create more anxiety. A few days later, still a little shaken from the unsettling tremor and the uncertainty of this mysterious virus from bats or snakes or whatever, we learned that the beloved hero, Dr. Li Wen Liang, a Chinese ophthalmologist who was one of the first to report the disease but was reprimanded and silenced, died. I felt such sorrow for him, his family, and for the thousands of people suffering from the disease.

Now the rest of the world – slowly, but steadily – has experienced a similar wave of shock – then disbelief – then curiosity – then cautiousness – then concern – then fear – then defense against the disease as each person decides for themselves how they will fight the virus that has surged past an infection rate over 2,000,000 (and this is only what is “officially” recorded).

Ethnocentrism and COVID-19

This disbelief that it is not going to happen to “me” is what happens during a pandemic because when it’s in someone else’s territory, you are still safe – at least that’s what you tell yourself. Complacency follows along with curiosity about them. The coronavirus that subverted China in the early weeks of 2020 (ironically the Year of the Rat) has now disrupted the rest of the world. What is believed to have originated in a wet market in the city of Wuhan, has the attention of people around the world and is no longer their problem but now our problem. A virus makes no distinction of borders – it does what it is supposed to do – ravage healthy bodies and move on to the next. Ethnocentrism – or the belief in the inherent superiority of one’s own group or culture does make distinctions. (Ethnos comes from Greek and means people, or cultural grouping. Centric comes from Latin and means center.)

Sociologists tell us that it is part of human nature to view other groups or cultures from the perspective of one’s own. Each group or culture has its own norms (rules for living), its beliefs and values (how you view the world), and its history (what is important from the past), all of which results in shaping the thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors of individuals in that group. For example, if we look at a map of the world, each map has its vantage point and one’s country is usually in the middle. We therefore judge the world based upon our own perspective (see image below). Psychologists then tell us that it is part of human cognition to compare groups or cultures because in that very act, we can make sense out of what is unknown.  While it may be human nature that we see things from our perspective and judge things based upon our worldviews, what we ultimately do with this attitude matters - are we inclusive or exclusive of those who hold different worldviews that we do?

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Combine the two fields – sociology and psychology – and you have researchers, like the late Professor Geert Hofstede, who study societal phenomena around the world. His contributions to science through decades of research on cultural dimensions via the values of different groups of people https://geerthofstede.com/ have informed the way people understand themselves and their societies around the world.

Professor Hofstede defines culture by using the metaphor of a computer. He calls it the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes one group of people from another. Culture is acquired because we learn things which are shared by those who grew up in the same place. We can measure culture based upon collective phenomena (how people behave in a particular environment) and collect data from individuals and take a central tendency of the people who give a certain answer. He says,

"Do we need to bother about culture? …everyone has her or his unique personality, history, and interest. At the same time, we share our human nature. We are group animals. We use language and empathy, and practice collaboration and inter-group competition. The unwritten rules of how we do these things differ from one human group to another. “Culture” is how we call these unwritten rules about how to be a good member of the group.”

At present during our global COVID-19 pandemic, people are reverting to their ethnocentric tendencies in terms of asserting their nation’s ability to deal with the coronavirus. Even despite attempts from the World Health Organization not to malign the particular origin of the disease (with this recent emphasis, I find it ironic that we still refer to the 1918 pandemic the “Spanish Flu” – when it possibly originated in an army camp in Kansas, USA), the US President has referred to it as the “China virus” and China has been suggesting that the US military had somehow introduced it to their country. The two nations play tit for tat regarding who is at fault, who didn’t reveal what information, how each nation is dealing with the malicious disease and etcetera. 

It is past the time to stop this unnecessary ethnocentrism and focus on what the nations of our world can do together regardless of philosophical, political, or cultural ideologies in order to bring the situation under control. Fortunately, a recent news a headline read: US and China set aside coronavirus differences and pledge to work together. But then the US President later threatened to rescind funding to the WHO for a slow response concerning the gravity of the coronavirus. Around and around it goes.

Considering these events, I would like to offer my observations on how China and the United States have been reacting to the virus based upon cultural differences by observing country cultural dimensions. Having weathered the coronavirus storm for six weeks in China and now another six weeks back in the USA, I find the comparisons fascinating. You can learn more insights from our Hofstede Insights Associate Partners thanks to Dunja Curcic of Motivf (https://www.linkedin.com/company/motivf/) and the podcast series on Cultural Perspectives on Coronavirus https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppdGRMGImKk&list=PL2I9sjvUYFdH05xWZC5tgnV1A-F61cEkP

Cultural Dimensions

When comparing countries, it helps to look at what might be similar as well as different in order to gain perspective about how a person or group of people might think or behave. There are six cultural dimensions according to Hofstede and China and the USA differ considerably on four of these dimensions yet are closer on two others – however, the manner in which these societies react to those two dimensions are rather different even though there are relatively similar scores. The scales of degree move from 0 (low) to 100 (high). See the descriptions of the dimensions below.

High Power Distance societies control from the top down with authoritative rule and people must accept the rules even when they disagree; Low Power Distance indicates an emphasis on equal rights and the importance of privileges and people can openly express displeasure with government without any retribution.

Individualist societies think in terms of one’s personal identity “me”, whereas a Collectivist society will place emphasis on “we” – individual identities will be tied to their group membership.

Masculine societies value achievement, success, and status, whereas Feminine cultures value caring for others and quality of life.

Uncertainty Avoidance societies demonstrate the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty or ambiguity and what they do to try and avoid those situations, which means Low Uncertainty accepts it and High Uncertainty avoids it.

Long-Term societies focus on persevering for future gains while Short-Term societies care about the here and now.

Indulgent societies place emphasis on enjoyment while Restraint societies delay gratification.

You will see in the table below some examples of what has transpired recently and how we can analyze each country’s actions based upon the cultural dimensions model.

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Societies differ in their combined attitudes and values and will react to world events based upon these combinations. My colleague, Huib Wursten, explains the phenomenon in this way: “The key issue is that the combination of the fundamental value dimensions is leading towards a ‘Gestalt’. In other words: the sum of the dimensions is more than the added consequences of the single ones. It creates something new…these combinations lead to different ‘mental images’ in the minds of people in each society.” (for more information check out his new book, The Seven Mental Images of Culture, on Amazon).

One thing is certain – we are all facing the unknown in an era of globalization amidst the coronavirus pandemic regardless of our national borders and the myriad cultures and subcultures that exist in between them. Nations are reacting differently to the COVID-19 pandemic based upon both group and individual perspectives. It is helpful to analyze these events from the lens of culture, which can bring into focus some of the reasons WHY people and their societies are reacting to WHAT is happening. To survive this crisis as an interconnected world, we MUST put our ideological, political, and cultural differences aside and learn to work together.

∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ 

Professor Hofstede once said, “National Culture cannot be changed, but you should understand and respect it.” I ask you, the reader, to weigh in – WHAT have you been experiencing in your culture during the coronavirus pandemic and WHY do you think it is that way? What are some of your examples?

Please be safe and stay well.

 ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ ∞ 

As a former professor with more than 20 years of experience in executive business education, Elizabeth Tuleja is now an Associate Partner with Hofstede Insights, a global cross-cultural consulting organization, splitting her time between China and the USA. As an expert in cross-cultural assessment, she is working with Hofstede Insights on the development and implementation of scientifically validated cross-cultural assessment tools that can help clients successfully manage across differences with greater cultural adaptability. Elizabeth holds both a Ph.D. in Education and a Master’s degree in Intercultural Communication from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a Certified Professional Coach (CPC) through the International Coach Federation (ICF). She’s been on the faculty of leading business schools around the world: Wharton, Chinese University of Hong Kong, University of Notre Dame, and Sichuan University; and is author of several books, including Intercultural Communication for Global Leadership: How Leaders Communicate for Success (Routledge). She has consulted with a variety of clients such as U.S. Marines, U.S. Army, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Vanguard, AXA, Marriott International, Verizon, Whirlpool, Panasonic, China Development Bank, and HSBC. 


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