It’s a paradox that in a time of global crisis, when people are reaching out to care for neighbors, friends and family, the most pressing need is for those people to maintain social distance. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to care for each other and show love and support. Jacqueline Chen, an assistant professor of psychology, recently wrote in Psychology Today about her experiences with cultural backgrounds impacting how people support each other. We asked Chen for tips on how to show care and concern in this unprecedented time.
Different cultures express care and concern in different ways. What have you noticed in your own experience?
People in East Asian cultures tend to shy away from expressing a lot of emotion in their relationships, and so there is an increased focus on providing advice and assistance to show people that you care about them. This is definitely true in my family. For example, we rarely tell each other things like “I love you” or “I really miss you.” Instead, we mostly communicate about practical issues. Right now we are focused on making sure that our older relatives stay at home and have the necessary food and supplies so that they don’t have to go out.
On the other hand, mainstream American culture tends to emphasize direct emotional communication as a way to support people. I can also see this in the kinds of messages that I send and receive to my European American friends. Compared to my family members, these friends are more likely to express sympathy and kindness explicitly, saying things like, “Sending you love and hugs” or “Miss you all” rather than offering advice or help.
How can we keep cultural differences in mind as we give and receive care through the coronavirus crisis?
Keep in mind that, in times of great stress, people are likely to fall back on their most comfortable ways of providing support for them. In general, I think we need to practice compassion and understanding for ourselves and for our close others.
Some people in your life may be really into providing problem-focused support – and they might even flood you with information about how to cope with the pandemic. Although receiving this type of support can sometimes feel overwhelming or annoying, try to keep in mind that they are sending you the information because they care. They aren’t sending information to every person they know – they are sending it to you because they care about your well-being.
Other people in your life might be really prone to providing emotional support. With increased social distance, it can be harder to provide emotional comfort to people, and it’s normal if the social distance starts to make people feel frustrated about the “normal” in their relationships being disrupted.
Social distance also makes it harder for people to see that you need support because they might not be with you face-to-face. If you feel distress, it’s important to be proactive about connecting with your community. You don’t necessarily have to ask for support or help, even initiating social connection without explicitly asking for support could make you feel a little better.
We‘re in a scenario now where many of us are feeling a desire to care for others without physical contact or proximity. How do we show our care without visits or hugs?
If you are used to giving a lot of emotional comfort, such as hugs and reassuring pats on the back, try to think about other ways you could convey the same emotional reassurance. For example, are there cute photos, GIFs, videos, or written messages that you could send in lieu of visits and hugs?
Challenge yourself to think about creative and new ways to show we care. Maybe it’s as simple as finding a photo of a treasured memory that you shared and emailing it with a note.
You could also try to have a “shared experience,” like agreeing to watch the same movie separately and talking about it on the phone afterwards. If you share a hobby, is there a way to share in that hobby while maintaining social distance? For example, if you enjoy watching sports together, can you exchange video highlights of past games? Or find an online trivia game to play against each other? These shared experiences can help maintain social connections, and they can also provide some fun and distraction.
If we can approach this crisis with the goal of finding creative ways to support each other and have fun, this will help us all cope with the stress.
How have you seen the way we care for each other change in the last few weeks?
I’ve seen a lot of people come together to provide community in creative ways, such as hosting virtual happy hours and offering their professional services for free to those in need. I think that the nature of the pandemic cutting off our normal social connections, and the fact that the solution requires collective action, highlights our humanity has been particularly strong in motivating people to seek out ways to feel connected with one another. I hope that this phenomenon will continue as we weather the pandemic.