Cultural responses to a worldwide pandemic: Five things we can learn from one another
Cultural responses to a worldwide pandemic: Five things we can learn from one another


By Ann Straub



As international educators, we realize the importance of adapting our behaviours and perceptions to cultural differences in our schools, universities and communities. Working internationally in diverse environments offers an unparalleled opportunity for personal and professional growth. Right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, we’re learning and adapting to a whole new set of circumstances and a wide set of factors are at play—cultural, personal, professional, and otherwise.

In any circumstances, unrecognized cultural differences—among school and university teaching staff, institutional leaders, boards, parents and students—may result in underlying tension, unresolved conflict, and can miss the opportunity to make the best use of each person’s talents and insights. In the world right now, we are seeing some culturally different responses to the pandemic and cultural frameworks are one lens that may lend some understanding to the differences.

We can begin to recognize the powerful role culture plays in our responses during times of stress and uncertainty.

Jane Hyun, a Business Consultant and Interculturalist sheltering-at-home in NYC, wrote, “Geert Hofstede, renowned social psychologist, measured the differences in individualism vs collectivism, or the ‘I’ and ‘We’ across nations.” In “I” cultural behaviours, we are more likely to expect that “each individual act for him or herself, make their own choices, and that individual needs take precedence over the group’s.” and there is more “independent guarding of “my rights” and individual welfare. In “We” cultural behaviours, “where the collectivist orientation is prevalent, preferences are given to the rights of the community, team, or organization and standing out is not encouraged; therefore, decisions are made that take into account the best interests of the group.”

How do you see different cultures?

Do you notice some people at your school or university using the more collective ‘we’ behaviours, while others using the more individualistic ‘I’ behaviours? How does this play out in a school or university community where many cultures are represented?


Our cultural understanding or intercultural competence begins with an understanding of our own cultural framework. Our core is made of the things that matter most to us and cannot be compromised. Our flex is made up of the areas where we can accommodate and compromise. These are unique to each of us. What are the values, perceptions and behaviours we hold in our own cultural core? And what are we able to flex when we encounter difference?

What happens when we are not able to flex when facing diversity?

Here are a few reminders for international educators as they continue to navigate how to work within a diverse international education environment within this new set of circumstances.

1. Do not overlook difference. It is a within our human nature to look for commonalities when encountering difference, “to get along to go along.” This is a fine place in which to begin, but it often gets in the way of recognizing and adapting to difference. 

2. It is everyone's responsibility to adapt to difference.Assumptions are sometimes made that international schools are based on western educational models which might then go on to presuppose that anyone who is not from a western-based culture needs to adapt to the dominant culture in the school. Yet adaptation is a two-way street in which all cultures need to recognize and adapt to difference. (Read an example of this in this post: Meeting but not in the middle)

3. Find a trusted friend who will tell you whether or not you are being sensitive to their culture. We almost always over-estimate our intercultural competence. Finding a trusted person from the culture with whom you are interacting is one of the best ways to receive honest feedback as to whether or not you are over-looking differences and behaving in a culturally respectful manner.

4. Become familiar with your own culture and the cultures with whom you are interacting. Intercultural competence begins with an awareness of who you are culturally and where you can and cannot adapt your perceptions and behaviours. The Culture Map by Erin Meyer is an excellent book to read to gain a basic understanding of cultural scales or frameworks. Cultural Intelligence by Julia Middleton will help you to understand your own core and flex values and behaviours, and Global Dexterity by Andy Molinsky will help you to understand how you can adapt to cultural differences strategies and how to intersect with difference when their remains an adaptation gap.

5. Reflect on intercultural experiences you have had; those that went well and those that did not. As John Dewey stated, “We do not learn from our experience. We learn from reflecting on our experience.”


Water, What's water? From quote by American writer David Foster Wallace

American writer David Foster Wallace: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What ... is water?”


International schools may provide in-service education regarding the local environment and cultural “dos and don’t''s,” and ongoing intercultural education beyond that level is needed. It is up each of us to continue the development of our intercultural competence, defined by the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) as the ability to adapt perceptions and behaviours to commonality and difference in order to bridge those differences. This happens through constant awareness of both commonalities and differences and continual reflection on our interactions both personally and professionally. Focusing on the growth of intercultural competence will not only improve your professional practice within a diverse educational environment, but it will allow those around you to flourish as well.

Some ways we can help

Here are some ways that we at CIS can help our members to explore cultural differences and develop the skills to lead schools and students with greater intercultural understanding.

  • Your educators can use the CIS Culture & Learning Survey to help your school community understand how each student’s voice, culture and preferences can influence teaching and learning. The data gathered helps teachers and leaders to understand students' preferences relating to individuality, collaboration, communication, cross-cultural understanding, relationship to authority, and more. Take this opportunity to hear directly from your students on their recent learning experiences. Results can be analysed at the whole-school level to inform decision-making. Log into the CIS Community portal for more information.
  • Here are some recommended books on intercultural leadership, including The Culture Map by Erin Myers, written for people dealing with intercultural differences and human interactions in a collaborative work setting.


Cultural responses to a worldwide pandemic: Five things we can learn from one another