19 November 2020

How Culture and Not Policy Might Explain the Vast Difference Between the US and East Asian Nations COVID Outcomes

East Asia has done really well with COVID. We’ve done horribly. This might stem from who our culture has trained us to be.

An Asian friend had shared about the importance of respect in her culture. She was expressing dismay at an American friend who she felt had repeatedly been disrespectful. Asian culture leans towards respect and American culture towards the notion of freedom or individuality. There is a tension between these two. 

One of the first signs that a child is maturing is that they become aware of situations and adapt. At church? Be quiet. At a playground? Run and yell. In theory, we adults are also able to adapt to situations and change but in practice we often either end up being the patient one or the funny one or the one who wants to solve a problem rather than take up a fight. We have a particular way of being that we default to even when it isn’t appropriate. We end up as the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral or cries on the playground.

As a group, culture becomes a default that we turn to even when it’s not appropriate.

After World War II, Japanese policy makers scoured the world for examples of constitutions they might adapt to their country. In that process, Western advisors learned the most remarkable thing. Per Francis Fukuyama
"the Japanese language had no word equivalent to the French droit, German Recht, or English right. There was no concept, so basic to European and American law, that rights inhered in individuals prior to their coming together in society, and that part of the role of government was to protect those individual rights.”

A culture that didn’t even have a word for rights is less likely to protest simple things like wearing masks or test and trace programs that allow officials to quickly isolate a small number of people who might spread COVID. Respect for the lives and health of others is obviously more important than someone’s right to have their nose out and in other people’s business in the midst of a pandemic. That culture is a gift in the midst of a pandemic, their economies doing better than ours and their death and hospitalization rates a fraction of ours.

There are huge benefits to American cultures’ disregard for offending others in order to create something new or be someone different. The early rappers weren’t worried about offending popular sensibility any more than the early rockers or jazz musicians before them. A startup doesn’t wait for permission from vested interests in the community and may even put them out of business. The American tilt towards freedom has its moments of genius and utility, helping to create the next thing. 

But like a kid who only knows how to behave on the playground, we Americans have now found ourselves in a situation for which our default cultural setting is inappropriate.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their back nor a favored few ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God.” We love the notion that we are our own person and no one will tell us what to do. We are not sheeple. Our default setting is the guy in Die Hard who is simultaneously fighting bad guys and bureaucracy and beats them both. Our culture has led us to become the country of the "You can't make me wear a mask," masses. And yet now may not be the appropriate moment for that.

Is it better to make respect for others a priority or freedom to be an individual a priority? Well, it depends. In our current situation, respect seems like a distinct advantage.

I wonder if there is such a thing as situational culture. It could be handy.

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