Remember when you’d go to work even though you had a little sniffle, maybe a cough, even a scratchy throat? Hell, remember when you went in with a 102 temp after you threw up a little that morning? Nothing a little Tylenol couldn’t fix.
Ah, the good ‘ol days!
One such occasion stands out clearly in my mind. I had been in Thailand for maybe 6 months. I had a runny nose, cough and scratchy throat. And like any good American, I pulled up my bootstraps, got dressed, and headed into work. Tough as nails. So I trotted into the school office to get my mail, tissue in hand. As usual, our secretary, Miss An, greeted me with a smile. But when I replied with a gravelly whisper, I was met with a shocked look. Miss An, so very very polite, hid her total horror at my condition by asking if maybe I needed to be home in bed. “No, no. I’m fine. I work like this all the time,” I said, as I loudly blew my nose and hurled the spent kleenex into the trash can. Now, barely able to hide her disgust, she suggested I go to the infirmary. I laughed and said, “This is nothing! One time I worked for three days with strep throat. Didn’t even know it.” Quietly, she opened her desk drawer and pulled out a surgical mask. “Miss Melissa, maybe you could wear this?” I looked at her in disbelief. A mask? That’s weird. How was a mask going to help ME? I was already sick.
It wasn’t until a few months later that an American colleague, having been in Thailand for several years, explained to me that it was “impolite” to go without a mask when ill, even with a very slight sniffle. And the big “aha”? The mask protected those around me. You see, it wasn’t about me, it was about the group. This was later highlighted when a section of our school had a Typhoid outbreak. You read that correctly. Typhoid. Even though I had been vaccinated, there was still a 20% chance I could contract this potentially deadly disease. I could even be an asymptomatic carrier. I was tested and quarantined until my test results came back. I mean, I was in a country that literally screened me for Leprosy and Elephantiasis upon entry. Diseases so far from my reality. Diseases not to be trifled with. And the Thai people knew what to do. Stay home when sick, wear a mask, get tested, get vaccinated and quarantine if needed. All of this to keep others’ safe. Keep the group safe.
You know where I’m going on this. So why? Why has masking, and vaccinations and testing and quarantine for COVID been so very, very contentious and divisive in my beloved United States of America? Well, I think it has a lot to do with American culture.
Think about it. What is America but a country built on self-reliance and individualism? My own ancestors were religious refugees from the Old World. Fleeing a king and country that had criminalized all protestant religions, they boarded the ship Bevis in 1638, sailing just as government agents arrived in an attempt to stop them from leaving England. They didn’t want anyone telling them what to do so they struck out to make their own way. Strong and individualistic, our roots were forged on a foundation of hardship that often forced people to first, look out for themselves. My ancestors weren’t so different from the majority of people that sought a second chance in the New World. (Well, our white ancestors. But, that’s another blog.)
And guess what? There’s a study to support what we pretty much already know. Geert Hofstede took a look at 40 countries back in 1980 (slight revisions have been made since) and compared them. One aspect of culture that he examined was the emphasis on individualism (orientation toward the individual) versus an emphasis on collectivism (orientation toward the group) in the various countries. With a score of 91, the US scored the highest in the world at the individualistic end of the spectrum. Go figure. Thailand? Twenty. Individual rights versus duty to community.
Since returning to the US, I’ve been caught by surprise, more than a few times, when Rugged Individualism played the lead in everyday concerns.
“Potluck? Assign a dish? Thanks, but I’ll bring what I want.”
Little kid jumping off the top of the big toy? “Not my problem.”
Need help with that 150 lb bag of cement? “No no. I’m fine. At 85, you think I don’t know what I’m doing?”
“Split the bill? Fair and square. Let me get my calculator.”
“Honey, let’s stop and ask for directions.” “No. I know exactly where we’re going.”
“Not wearing a mask! I mean, I don’t wanna.”
No vax? “My right. My choice.”
“And for God’s sake, don’t tell me what to do.”
Frankly, about the only time I’ve witnessed an attempt at Collectivism is when a “friend” needs help moving.
So, here we are. Nearly two years into a Pandemic that makes my brush with Typhoid look like an encounter with a small furry kitten. And while I love so many, many things about America, I’m troubled that one of our important core values is crippling us in ways that could last for years to come.
Rugged Individualism. Our bedrock and our tyrant.
References and interesting stuff:
Geert Hofstede’s studies Overview
Individualistic Cultures and Behavior – Simply Psychology(opens in a new tab)
Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States
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