Home/Leadership In Crisis – Cultural Scripting: How countries React to Covid19

Leadership In Crisis – Cultural Scripting: How countries React to Covid19


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products and become agile in a turbulent environment. In Intact Academy we organize training programs for coaches and consultants to help businesses innovate. I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years, and one thing I’ve learned over time is how to deal with crisis.

One of the things that is preoccupying me at the moment is the difference in how countries react to Covid19. I’ve worked all over the world so I see these differences very clearly. I compared my agenda from May last year to this year – last year I was in 10 different countries in four weeks. And that used to define my life. At the moment I’m not physically travelling, although I am travelling in my mind and through the camera with people in other countries. 

Cultural scripting and cultures have been a fascination of mine for a very long time because I think that apart from your personal life story, you also have a cultural life story and that actually determines how we react to Covid19. 

So what is the cultural script? Well, within a transactional analysis, we talk about cultural script in two ways: 

  1. The individual level you’ve integrated the etiquette, techniques and character of a certain culture. Etiquette are the values and the rules of your tribe. The techniques are the methods you create success, the character or the degrees of freedom you have in a culture to be yourself or have to adapt. So for instance, in the army, the etiquette is very strong. The techniques are prescribed, subscribed in standard operating procedures. And the character is very narrow because the room to be yourself within the Army’s smaller than the force to adapt.
  2. At the social level, cultural scripts are the accepted, expected patterns of events based on unspoken assumptions by the majority. I really liked this definition because it has to do with patterns and unspoken assumptions. And it also stresses the fact that the majority actually determines what happens in a culture. 

What does this mean for our reactions to Covid19? Usually a cultural script is latent until there is a new, an unknown situation. And specifically, if the resources become scarce, and you’re suddenly addressed as a representative of your group instead of as a person. 

NOVELTY: So for instance, Covid19 is a completely unexpected situation for all of us, and suddenly all our unspoken assumptions come up about who belongs to our group. Suddenly the boundaries are closed, and we’re focusing only on our national well-being. The whole European thinking has gone out the window. 

SCARCITY: Cultural scripts also become very apparent the moment there are scarce resources. So think of this, you’re in a country, there is a lack of food and people start to go to supermarkets and buy toilet rolls only for their own family. The government even stresses you’re only allowed to touch within your family unit. People thankfully become really creative about who their family unit is. My niece is in a student home and everyone in that student home has suddenly become a family unit and they only share their resources within that home.

Covid19 has created a fear about scarce resources and it has forced us to think about who is part of our clan and who isn’t. 

Very primitive thinking in times of well-being and wealth. We usually don’t think of that because there’s enough to go around within the majority. But in times of pandemic or other crisis, you suddenly see the scarce resources bring up the cultural scripting. 

MEMBER OF GROUP: The third reason that cultural script comes up is when you’re addressed as a member of your group. So for instance, I was often the youngest and the only female at that level in a company. I was very surprised to be asked: what do women think of this? I wasn’t there specifically as a woman. I was there as the global lead of HR. Of course I’m very happy to be a woman and to represent that group, but to be suddenly addressed as a representative of your group means that your cultural scripting comes up good or bad, or whatever you learned around that. 

I want to be clear that during times of pandemic your internal representation of your culture and the external representation of culture comes up again because it’s new and unknown, there are scarce resources and you’re addressed as a representative of your group. 

During Covid19 cultural scripting became not latent but very pertinent and very obvious to all of us. You see countries within that cultural script, relive old paradigms of culture and create measures that fit with those old paradigms. I’m talking for instance, about some cultures in which a military paradigm suddenly became apparent. Even countries that were on the way to democracy, countries that I’ve lived in. We have countries like Holland where I’m living at the moment where you see a resurgence of thinking in terms of WE.

Published On: June 18th, 2020By Categories: Leadership, Videos


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