Culture, in some ways, is like the habits that a person has. It would be exhausting to recreate every part of our lives on a daily basis, so we develop habits of how to think or favorite expressions to say or what time we go to bed.
When a group of people all share a pattern of life, we call it “culture” and it is something like a habit shared by a big group of people. It means that the group has already made decisions about how to respond to life’s challenges – usual dinner hour, the best way for young people to respond to older people, what is “polite” and what is “rude.”
But what happens when those “group habits” begin to change? What we call “culture shift” or “culture change” can be disorienting for those who have expectations of one kind, only to be met by realities of another kind.
The covid virus has upset a lot of daily patterns of life for people all around the world. So, did it create “culture change?”
The answer is yes, it did create some culture change. And the answer is that no, it did not create culture change. Let me explain!
In the US, we did not have the pattern of using face masks in public places, so adding that as a personal and group habit has definitely been a culture shift. We had the habit of shaking hands, which is less common in the presence of a transmittable virus. Some elements of restaurants and buying groceries and going to school likewise shifted. Those changes have touched the lives of millions of people, bringing new patterns to our daily lives. That is a culture shift.
But on the other hand, there is no culture shift at all. American people have the cultural patterns of protesting what we disagree with, of seeking our own independent paths to live our lives, and of creating technological answers to life’s questions. If you look at how the US has handled covid, those cultural patterns are very much alive and well! We have not changed in the way we seek individual independence, in how we look for answers in medical science, or in the protests that have taken place when people felt that the reaction of government was an incursion into liberties. In all of those ways, we have been quite predictably American, adjusting the values of our culture in a disorienting circumstance.
So what does this “culture shift at one level but stability at another” do to those who live through it? That pressure can be terribly disorienting! In fact, learning to live in another culture can be a particularly stressful activity under the best of circumstances. When you are used to living according to one set of patterns, only to move to another part of our planet and then realize that your lifelong habits are no longer effective – that is stressful! Every activity and every communication needs to be thought through! The “habits” that saved you time or helped you show friendliness to your neighbors no longer work, so you have to deliberately learn a whole new set of patterns for life.
If you are reading this post as an experienced intercultural worker, you might well be noticing something a little unnerving happening right now. You have made all of the adjustments to your new home. You have learned how to be polite and how to write and how to drive and on and on and on. You have grown your world from the single cultural orientation you had before to now being flexible enough to move effectively into other cultures.
And then covid, or economics, or military intervention. . . one of those “culture shift” pressures came along and suddenly the place you thought you were growing comfortable in is no longer predictable. The patterns you learned before are no longer the patterns you see before your eyes. A pressure (like the covid example) has shifted the culture.
But only at one level!
If you look hard at the situation you are in, you will see that the deep level of culture has stayed the same while the response to current pressures has produced “culture shift” at the more superficial level.
For example, countries with Confucian cultural values see the relationship between ruler and ruled as one of the Five Cardinal Relationships. So it is not surprising that the governments of Confucian background nations have responded to covid with a firm hand–it is a deep cultural belief that the ruler should act boldly at times.
My guess is that some readers of this post have found life to be disorienting lately-–somewhat due to the physical pressures themselves, and somewhat due to the “culture change” that has grown from those changes.
I’d like to encourage you to look at the cultural patterns and shifts from two points of view: both the “daily activity” view and the deeper values and beliefs view. It might be that what looks like a disorienting culture shift was nothing more than a very predictable set of values and beliefs being expressed in the context of new pressures. Perhaps the culture hasn’t changed deep down, and perhaps that can help you to face those “changes” with less stress, less disorientation. There may be more stability than you realized!
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