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  • Sylvia Gonner

Our Cultural Differences Un-Masked


While the current debacle in America dividing those who support and oppose wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is very unfortunate, it’s not at all surprising. That isn’t just because the United States is in the midst of an election year, where this health and economic crisis has turned political. It’s to be expected because of the deep-rooted cultural differences that affect people’s beliefs and behaviors.

Generally, the world is made up of cultures that are either predominantly rule-followers or rule-breakers. Cultural psychologist Michelle Gerfand has examined the social forces that explain human behaviors related to rules in society. According to her theory, cultures can be divided into those that adhere to rules (which are considered tight), those that challenge rules (which are considered loose), and those somewhere in between on this tight-loose continuum. Like most social traits, views around rules are ingrained in cultures based on a country’s history. In this case, Gerfand points to the existence of threat (real or perceived) as the main influence on our behavior regarding rules. Threats in our history —such as natural disasters, wars, famine or fear of invasion— have impacted how rules are perceived, respected, and enforced around the world. This varies greatly from country to country.


Indeed, we’ve observed how rule-following cultures such as China, Germany, or Korea generally adhere to requirements around face masks, but also faithfully follow other instructions to restrict the spread of COVID-19 in their countries. On the other side of the spectrum, in cultures that are predominantly rule-breaking, such as the United States and Brazil, the adoption and enforcement of rules around face masks have been less than effective. Interestingly, some countries in Europe such as Italy and Spain —that are typically on the loose end of the spectrum— have been rather effective in both establishing and enforcing strict rules. That’s in part because the threat level, which has been very high and visible for the pandemic in these countries, is the risk factor that has the greatest impact on behaviors related to rules.


There is another cultural difference that impacts the wearing of masks around the world. Some cultures are egalitarian while others are individualistic. In egalitarian cultures, the welfare of the group rather than the right of the individual will predominantly affect people’s behaviors. In New Zealand, a country that isn’t typically on the rule-abiding end of the spectrum, it’s the very strong sense of egalitarianism in their culture that has led to a broad adherence to mask-wearing and other requirements to protect individuals against the spread of the virus. New Zealanders’ respect of community and reluctance to stand out in the crowd is in this situation stronger than their rule-bending tendencies.


So, you may wonder if the USA is truly a loose culture where rules are meant to be challenged. As is the case for several other cultural traits, the United States is a mixed bag. Unlike older and more homogeneous cultures such as the Chinese, Greek or French, America is a relatively young country as well as a melting pot of many cultures. While generally on the loose end of the continuum, Americans are divided when it comes to following rules. Like the rest of the world, the pandemic’s high threat level has led to unprecedented changes in the behaviors of many Americans’ now following guidelines set by the CDC in order to protect themselves and vulnerable groups within their communities from the deadly virus. Yet the voices of some rule-breakers, who fundamentally believe that an individual’s rights and freedom is precisely what defines their culture, are also heard loudly as they protest these rules.


The mask debate has even been raging within France, where pre-COVID-19 laws that made it illegal to cover one’s face in public areas (primarily aimed at restricting the niqab and burqa worn by Muslims) are now in direct conflict with the mandatory requirements to wear face masks in public. In a society that has made such a virtue of uncovering faces, and that instituted laws against concealing one’s face (which has been considered an affront to the fundamental equality of all French citizens), the double-standard of now mandating such an act —even for health reasons— hasn’t escaped many observers. Although yet again, rules are perceived within a broader context of their reason, intent, and potential to resolve problems or threats.

COVID-19 has unmasked —in a very visible and worldwide manner— how deeply entrenched cultural beliefs around the world impact our behaviors, and can sometimes make it difficult to understand one another. Yet, we benefit the most when we respect each other’s differences and find ways to work together. The world needs both tight and loose cultures. Society needs rule-followers to maintain order, respect, and safety, as well as rule-breakers to bring us innovation, break-throughs, and fun ­—even during a pandemic. As Gerfand notes however, “the more we can be ambidextrous —tightening when there’s threat and loosening when it’s safe— the better off we will all be.”


For now, please stay masked and safe!

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