Culture in Crisis, Part II: How Cultural Values Impact Communal Response to Trigger Events

We’ve discussed how cultural values can predict how a community will respond to crisis.

In a continuation of last week’s post, we’ll look at the conclusion of the 2007 study by Melinda Rene Miller, titled “The Human Element: A Study of the Effects of Culture on Crisis Reactions.”

Hurricane Katrina

With the crisis of Hurricane Katrina as the backdrop, the study looked at two communities within the disaster area and their responses to it.

The values of the New Orleans Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast communities differ, and the study sought to draw strong correlations between these preexisting cultural values and corresponding reactions to determine if community crisis reactions can be predicted based on culture.

The study examined each communities’ demographics, communication styles, association with authorities, relationship to the environment, group unity and community roles, amongst other aspects, to infer their values regarding each category.

Key Differences in Response

The study found key differences in response to Hurricane Katrina between Louisiana’s Ninth Ward and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Let’s look at Louisiana’s Ninth Ward:

  • Community Roles Analysis: A community roles analysis showed preexisting beliefs in the inefficiency of leaders, which led to internal disputes and an inability to make unified decisions. This resulted in mixed messages, distrust, confusion, and an inability to execute a crisis plan. Additionally, many police and emergency services officers reportedly abandoned their posts.
  • Demographic Analysis: Evacuation plans failed to include segments of the population, including the ill, those with pets, and those without vehicles or places to go. The demographic analysis showed 30 percent of the Ninth Ward was disabled and over 30 percent didn’t own a car. Many lived below the poverty line and so had no emergency savings to evacuate. Further, personal relationships (even with pets) and fear of change were ingrained in Ninth Ward culture. The paper deems that the culture in the community was “every man for himself”; the onus was on the government to fix things and building back the community together was not considered a personal responsibility.
  • Communication Style Analysis: Many in the ward ignored the evacuation order. The communication style analysis showed that though the community values orders to some degree, having been repeatedly given this evacuation order before unnecessarily, they did not believe authorities and thought the storm would blow over. They also feared looters more than the storm.

Those in the Mississippi Gulf Coast:

  • Community Roles Analysis: Although the government response to the Mississippi Gulf Coast community was equally slow, the people began cleanup on their own. Their values include a can-do attitude, resulting in community rebuilding that was 21 percent more expedited than in the Ninth Ward.  The police force and firefighters were on duty around-the-clock, as dictated by the local government.
  • Demographic Analysis: In the study, there is little mention of the impact of demographics on the response. It would be interesting to see these differences fleshed out, as the wealth and health of the community significantly impacts its ability to respond.
  • Communication Style Analysis: To prevent looting, the local government controlled supplies and resources, in order to distribute them equally to citizens. In rebuilding of the area, the government asked the community to be mindful of elevation maps and received support and excitement about the restructuring rather than the resistance experienced in the Ninth Ward.

The study explains why knowledge about cultural values is valuable in this context:

“Being able to make the claim that a community’s culture has a greater effect on the public’s reaction to a crisis trigger event than the event itself, will aid future research in focusing more on creating a list of cultural aspects that match with crisis response strategies.”

The Way Forward

The conclusion drawn from this study is that knowing a culture and its values provides a wealth of information that can be applied to a crisis response strategy customized to that culture’s values. 

Consider the most recent global pandemic.

Culture influenced the various outcomes of different countries and communities around the world during the COVID crisis.

The reactions to supply rationing, the degree of adherence to face mask rules and social distancing, the acceptance of or reluctance to vaccination – and the resulting outcomes of such actions/inactions – all of this has roots in each nation’s culture and its values.

Cross-cultural research into the varying cultural responses and their outcomes to the COVID crisis, and other similar large-scale crises, could greatly aid organizations and governments in creating more effective response strategies customized to different cultural pockets in a nation – and to the nation as a whole.