What Social Distancing Reveals about East-West Differences

East-West Differences

Gish Jen

Social distancing Americans. Yale professor Nicholas Christakis warns that it asks us “to suppress our profoundly human and evolutionarily hard-wired impulses for connection,” for example. And journalist Greg Miller and others cite possible ramifications that include “heart disease, depression, dementia, and even death.” In striking contrast, there has little talk along these lines in mainland China. A search of Chinese social media yields almost no posts on the subject: shutdown-related concerns expressed by Chinese are primarily about the safety of themselves, family and friends; change of lifestyle; boredom; physical confinement; and the resulting social conflict due to close and extended interaction time while simultaneously managing work, childcare and household tasks. A review of China’s academic literature likewise yields no articles.


This may seem counterintuitive. Shouldn’t the group-oriented Chinese have more social-distancing anxiety than Americans, not less? To give a little background: Individuals in both Western and Eastern societies have social needs, which we meet in a variety of ways. However, our “go-to” strategies do tend to differ. In the more individualistic West, we love our families, of course, but tend to rely heavily on friendship as well—on elective ties reflective of “who we really are.” Conducive to personal growth, these friendships can coalesce into “chosen families.”


But these relationships depend on nuanced in-person interaction, which, unfortunately, is made difficult by social distancing. Cornell researchers Duyen Nguyen and Susan Fussel have shown that compared with the Chinese, Americans rely more on nonverbal behavioral cues such as head turns, facial expressions and eye contact to support communication. We can also be more skittish—more likely, for example, to attribute a lack of affirmative body language to a lack of interest or involvement. As these sorts of subtle behavioral cues are poorly conveyed by electronic media, Americans now reliant on Zoom or FaceTime can find it hard to maintain a sense of connection with others.


In contrast, people in more collectivistic societies like China tend to meet their social needs with given or blood ties—with family or schoolmates, for example. Less personalized though they may be, these relationships also require less upkeep. Indeed, the lab run by one of us (Qi Wang) recently found that Asians can derive a sense of closeness from almost any kind of social exchange, including talking about the weather. A sense of connection is thus easily maintained even during long periods of social distancing.


That’s not to say that epidemics don’t distress the Chinese. They absolutely do, in both the short term and the long term. A study of the survivors of the 2003 SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, for example, found not only that survivors were traumatized, but that even a year later, they had “alarmingly high levels of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic symptoms.” This distress, though, was interestingly linked only to the illness itself. Though social distancing was practiced in Hong Kong in 2003, the possible ill effects of this elicited little Chinese concern. Interestingly, research found that during the SARS pandemic, residents in Hong Kong in fact experienced increased social connectedness through their communities.


Might we Americans ever be as little distressed by social distancing as the Chinese? Possibly. Cultural phenomena like individualism and collectivism are, of course, hugely complex and dynamic. No one can make predictions about them with certainty. Still, we might ask: could the current pandemic and its ensuing economic fallout prove large enough a shock to temper our extreme American individualism—an individualism which has arguably reached not only the highest levels in the world but in human history? Perhaps. Already many college students have moved back in with their parents, altering their relationships in ways that could have ongoing effects. If nothing else, these adult children may become more keenly aware of the safety net that blood ties afford in a crisis.


What’s more, a severe recession, should one set in, might draw various and sundry unemployed family members into active child-raising. The nuclear family could become less nuclear; multigenerational households could proliferate; and the very young could emerge with a more collectivistic orientation—an orientation that has laid latent in many parts of America, overwhelmed by a dominant discourse that paints America as a nation of cowboys.


Ironically, the pandemic may have the opposite effect in China. A number of Chinese cities saw a sharp uptick in divorces—a long-accepted marker of individualism—following the lifting of their lockdown. Such is the demand for divorces in the southern city of Shenzhen that, according to the Chinese Web site Sixth Tone, “couples are having to make reservations a month in advance before they can get a divorce,” and in a small city in Hunan, divorce-related administrators have been so busy they don’t “even have time to drink water.”


Of course, the stress of confinement contributed to some of these breakups. As in the U.S., there has been a surge in domestic violence. But some breakups appear traceable to the surfacing of individualistic thinking that, for example, stresses choice and voluntary effort, and downplays duty and obligation. Thus when 34-year-old Zhang Ning found herself stuck taking care of her son and in-laws alone in Wuhan for months on end, she was outraged by her husband. “When I called him wanting to release my emotions, at first he comforted me a bit, but then he became impatient,” she told Sixth Tone. Then one day, he snapped at her: “Aren’t you supposed to do all this?”—a classic collectivistic reaction. And that, she reported, was that.


In short, while the Chinese may not experience social-distancing anxiety as we Americans do, the pandemic seems to have brought out individualistic ways of thinking in some. Of course, divorce rates and rationales can only tell a small part of the sprawling story that is China. Still, might the globalization that has drawn East and West so much closer together physically also, via the pandemic, draw us ever so slightly closer together psychologically as well? It’s possible.



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Author: Gish Jen {authorlink}
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