For more than half a century, ambiguity tolerance has been a subject of research in various branches of psychology.

One of the premiere studies on the topic analyzed ethnic prejudices in California.

Personality, company culture, and national culture have since been measured by this variable.

One such expression of ambiguity tolerance was identified by social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s research under the umbrella of “uncertainty avoidance.”

Uncertainty avoidance

We’ve discussed Hofstede’s work in this area before.

The four cultural dimensions Hofstede first identified were:

For all intents and purposes, we’ll only be discussing the dimension of uncertainty avoidance in this post.

Hofstede describes this dimension as the idea that:

“What is different is dangerous.”

He anecdotally illustrates an example of this.

An elderly American couple finds themselves babysitting their grandchildren in a small town in Italy, while the parents are temporarily located there. The grandchildren are friends with local Italian children, who all enjoy playing in the central piazza.

So, there the American grandparents are, allowing their grandchildren to run free with little restriction. Accustomed to “free play,” they don’t stand in the way of their grandchildren messing about, even if they fall down and lightly hurt themselves.

The Italian grandparents, on the other hand, are on it. Not only are their grandkids not allowed for a moment out of their sight, but any hurts that befall them are conscientiously dealt with. The child is picked up and brushed off in an instant.

This illustrates the differences in ambiguity tolerance between Americans and Italians.

In general, Americans have higher ambiguity tolerance.

Safe versus dangerous and clean versus dirty are two distinctions that an Italian child learns first during primary socialization.

The American grandparents see nothing to worry about with the dirt and danger in the piazza. In fact, they see no dirt or danger there, whatsoever.

Ambiguity Tolerance Research Evolves

Ambiguity tolerance is directly related to Hofstede’s uncertainty avoidance.

Furnham and Ribchester define it in their research:

“Ambiguity tolerance refers to the way and degree to which an individual or group perceives and processes information about ambiguous situations or stimuli when confronted by an array of unfamiliar, complex, or incongruent clues.”

Ambiguous stimuli cause a person with low ambiguity tolerance to avoid, feel stress, and react hastily.

Someone with high ambiguity tolerance may seek out ambiguous stimuli, as they desire to engage with such interesting and challenging environments. 

As you might assume, entering into a foreign culture is an ambiguous enterprise. You are hit with unknown stimuli, so a high ambiguity tolerance – or your ability to develop it – is an essential attribute for a foreign manager.

We’ll talk more about how to do just that next week.

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