Why Culture Changes How Sick You Feel

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Whatever our personal and geographic differences, bodies are bodies everywhere, and they're all gross. You'd think that a headache or an upset stomach feels about the same no matter who and where you are, but research proves otherwise. At a time when we're all worried about contagions, that can have consequences for who stays healthy and who powers through an illness.


A team of social scientists at the University of Texas at San Antonio have just released a study looking into how culture can change how sick you feel. These researchers call this phenomenon "socially appropriate sickness"; the idea is that your gender, ethnicity, and internalized social norms from your upbringing and environment can change how you interpret discomfort in your own body. For example, men who reported stronger bonds with their families were more likely say they were sick in the first place. The same was true of people who described themselves as stoic.

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This is crucial to take into consideration when scary-huge numbers of employees come to work sick. Part of that is systemic, and a key feature of the American work ecosystem — lack of paid sick leave, for instance, has been shown to keep workers in poverty conditions. But with any outbreak, whether it's cold, flu, or COVID-19, it's always best to listen to your body, no matter how you've been socialized to treat it. Allowing yourself time to rest and recover will help both you and your coworkers. No matter where your body comes from, that's one universal truth.