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Cultural Differences in the Online Environment During COVID-19

4/30/2020
With most business meetings and other communications now happening online, it is important to make a clear distinction between what is culturally appropriate when talking to international coworkers, friends, and other acquaintances. 
 
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The increased use of computer-mediated communication and Internet Technology during the COVID-19 pandemic has brought forward the issue of cultural diversity in the online environment. With most business meetings and other communications now happening online, it is important to make a clear distinction between what is culturally appropriate when talking to international coworkers, friends, and other acquaintances. Cultural differences have arisen from four main intercultural frameworks according to the Cultural Awareness International Organization which we describe below: 

Power Distance  

Power distance refers to the relationship between those in power, in this case the government, and the subordinates - the people of the country. Countries around the world have different responses to the outbreak because of their cultural values and governmental authority. Before discussing any serious topics, think about your colleague or friend’s cultural attitude to authority.  
 
Reactions to COVID-19 can be culturally influenced and related to power and the group norm within a culture will often default to national rules. Egalitarian governments have implemented significantly lax measures as compared with authoritative or hierarchical governments. Due to such vast disparity in nations, when speaking with someone from a stricter form of authoritative culture, you may encounter uncomfortable silences and pauses during your coronavirus conversations. 
 
An example of such cultural differences is between the Chinese and American culture in the way they have handled the COVID-19 situation. According to an article by Chaos and Comrades, the Chinese culture values obedience and having personal opinions may seem selfish.  

Masculinity  

According to Hofstede’s principles, the masculinity of a culture represents the extent that the society stresses achievement or nurtures ambition, acquisition of wealth, and differentiated gender roles . On the other end, a low masculine (or feminine) culture is relationship oriented and favors the importance of caring and nurturing behaviors, gender equality, environmental awareness, and fluid gender roles. When addressing to people from a different background, it is important to be aware of the masculinity surrounding their culture to avoid offending them. 
 
Dependent on the culture, it is important to be sensitive around topics related to social norms, politics and economics, religion, work, and daily routines especially in the online environment where conversations are more distant and body language cannot be interpreted. For example, the United States has more masculine ideals as compared with European countries. Indeed, the American culture puts an emphasis on economic growth, personal wealth and independence, while most European cultures focus on sustainable development, quality of life, and interdependence.  
 

Uncertainty Avoidance 

A key aspect of cross-cultural psychology is the concept of uncertainty avoidance. This term refers to the society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity and reflects on the extent of the members of the society to cope with anxiety and minimize uncertainty. High uncertainty avoidance cultures have more formal rules, structured learning systems, high precision and security, low labor turnover, and more resistance to change. Meanwhile, low uncertainty avoidance cultures have less rules, open-ended learning, high stress innovation and achievement, high labor turnover, and less resistance to change.  
 
Some countries with high uncertainty avoidance cultures include Finland, Russia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Japan, and South Korea. Countries with low uncertainty avoidance include Jamaica, Denmark, Singapore, Sweden, and Ireland. Given the massive uncertainty around COVID-19, high uncertainty avoidance cultures are more likely to want to return to their normal life faster than low uncertainty avoidance cultures which can create miscommunication when you connect with people from different cultures and express your concerns regarding COVID-19. 

Individualism  

Cultures that value individualism and believe that its strength and national right resides within the individual tend to be more open in discussing lifestyle changes and the effect of the novel virus on their daily lives. Cultures that believe its success stems from collectivism and interdependency are less likely to speak out against their country and talk openly about the situation around them.  
 
As with any cultural framework, communicational and cultural norms apply mainly to the median of any group or culture. However, while conversing in the online environment, where communication can easily be flawed and misinterpreted, it is essential to be aware of disparities and account for cultural sensitivity.