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Pandemic, Resilience, Self-care, and Culture

By Alex Markman posted 11-05-2020 11:39 AM


Uncertainty makes most of us uncomfortable. This is so because it robs us of any and every illusion of control we may have. Stress results from the feeling that we do not possess the appropriate skills and resources to adequately cope with the situation at hand. Thus, when we feel we do not have control, many of us become stressed.

Not all cultures respond to a loss of control in the same way. Fons Trompenaars´ Cultural Dimensions Model works by differentiating cultures based on their preferences. He uses seven categories (or dimensions) to organize these preferences in opposite pairs. Some dimensions worth going over before delving into resilience are “individualism versus communitarianism,” “neutral versus affective,” “specific versus diffuse,” and “internal direction versus external direction.”

Individualistic cultures believe that one´s outcomes in life are the result of one´s choices. In these cultures, people make decisions without needing to consult with others. It is one´s own responsibility to look after one´s own happiness and fulfillment. Cultures based on communitarianism believe that quality of life is improved when we help each other. Thus, these cultures organize themselves around groups and share a strong sense of loyalty to their “tribe.”

In neutral cultures people tend not to share their emotions. These are kept in check and are controlled. Any emotional outburst is reason for embarrassment, shame, and unease. In contrast, in affective cultures people tend to share their emotions even in the workplace. Indeed, it is considered normal that people share what they are feeling.

The specific versus diffuse cultural dimension alludes to the degree of separation between professional and personal lives. In specific cultures, people keep these two realms separate. They are also scheduled-focused and prioritize communications that are direct and to the point. On the other hand, in diffusive cultures people tend to see their personal and work lives as interconnected. Also, there is the prevailing belief that objectives can be better achieved when relationships are strong.

Finally, the internal direction versus external direction dimension looks at whether we believe we control our environment or, if we are controlled by it. In internal direction cultures people believe that they can control their environment to achieve their goals. The focus is self-centered and winning is very important. On the other hand, external direction culture people believe that they must work with their environment to achieve their goals.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines resilience as “the ability to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened”. A second definition refers to “the ability of a substance to return to its usual shape after being bent, stretched, or pressed.” When I think of resilience, in my mind´s eye I see the image of a tall bamboo. Bamboos will bend and sway in the strongest wind speeds but do not break or easily blow over.


Why talk about uncertainty, stress, Trompenaars´ seven dimensions, and resilience?

Before the pandemic many of us had a prevailing sense of control of our lives; we could make plans and picture what our lives would be like in the short- and medium-term. COVID-19 has come to brutally show us that this was just an illusion.

For the past seven months, every day we have been reminded of our limited control over external events. The pre-pandemic world seems to be held on pause while people fall ill, economies crumble, and poverty soars around the world. While all of us are being impacted by the pandemic, the cultures we live in are shaping the way in which we understand resilience, and thus are also shaping how we flex this muscle.

In June´s Collegial Conversation on Intercultural Considerations in Developing our Own Resilience, international educators from Jamaica, the US, and Argentina discussed how people with different backgrounds and in different latitudes understand resilience and handle stress. Having discussed Trompenaars´s dimensions, it will not come as a surprise to anyone that even the word resilience itself was understood differently in the three represented countries. Indeed, in Jamaica, it is thought of as   exercising self-care or exercising mindfulness. Instead of the image of the flexible bamboo, the image that came up then was imagining yourself on the other side of what is troubling.

In the countries represented in the collegial conversation self-care also takes different shapes depending on whether they are more neutral or affective, specific or diffuse. One example of this is the degree of stigma that is associated with seeking emotional support through mental care professionals. Of the three countries represented, in the US there seemed to be a higher level of shame associated with needing to look externally for help than in Argentina, which holds the city in the world (Buenos Aires) with the most mental health professionals per inhabitant. Indeed, seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist is so common that these costs are covered by most health insurances. In Argentina, therefore, it is common to mention to friends and even to co-workers that one is seeing a therapist.

Family, friends, and a religious community are important “resilience feeders” in Jamaica. As an example of a culture based on communitarianism, one´s group is key for emotional support.

Regardless of the way in which different cultures approach self-care, it is clear that the pandemic has generated significant amounts of stress, fear, and pain all over the world. Therefore, now more than ever it is important to incorporate self-care routines that will help us deal in the best way possible with the continued and very high levels of uncertainty we are facing. While it may be daunting to read the seven suggestions below, even adopting one on a daily basis will make a difference in your own well-being and, as a result, on how you relate with your team and those around you:

  1. Cut down on news consumption - instead, do a one-minute meditation (see the Brahma Kumaris 1-minute meditations on YouTube). You may make a team practice to meditate together for 1 minute at the start of each workday. Another awesome resource is the Insight Timer app which has 45k free meditations in different languages.
  2. Set your alarm once or twice per day to stretch at your desk (get some ideas on how to do this on Active Pause(s) at Work) you may want to propose to your team to do an “active pause” together once per week.
  3. Exercise - instead of sitting while watching TV/TV advertisements, march in front of the TV - you can use small weights on your arms/ankles. Use your phone to count your steps; you will be amazed at how “far” you can walk during one program.
  4. Have virtual “happy hours” with those friends/colleagues who live far away. These happy hours do not necessarily entail alcohol (although it is a nice addition) but connecting and being aware of making that exchange fun - rather than commiserating about everything that is going on in the world.
  5. Practice gratitude - we are all struggling in different ways and degrees through our human experience and particularly in this pandemic. Still, we have so much to be grateful for! Make a point to appreciate every day at least one good thing that you have in your life.
  6. Pamper yourself and pamper others - do something special for yourself or for others. It does not have to be expensive nor time-consuming: sleep an extra 10 minutes; take a slightly longer shower; give yourself a facial; treat yourself to an especially nice bottle of wine/chocolate/meal.
  7. Be gentle with yourself and with others- we are all learning how to deal with this situation; remember: we are all doing the best we can with the tools we have right now. :)