How to Cope in Uncertain Times: A Call for Ambiguity Tolerance

These are uncertain times.

The current climate has everyone spinning, trying to make sense from the senseless and turn the upside-down rightside-up again.

With so much conflicting information, so many question marks and dashed plans, ambiguity tolerance has never been more important.

Last week, we talked a little about uncertainty avoidance and ambiguity tolerance. In this post, we’ll discuss how to develop the latter.

Low Ambiguity Tolerance = Little Room for Relativism

Parental and cultural ideologies teach us right versus wrong and good versus bad.

Racism, for instance, stems from these very distinctions. The concepts of good and evil are clearly defined in such extreme ideologies, leaving little room for relativism or doubt.

When a system has strong rules and norms, ambiguity tolerance is often lower.

Such norms and classifications also exist in cultures with higher ambiguity tolerance; however, there is greater wiggle-room, and classifications are more flexible.

People, situations, and ideas are still labeled and placed in boxes but said boxes are open and cardboard, allowing easier interchangeability, not hard and inflexible under lock and key.

Oftentimes, the more diverse a place is, the higher the ambiguity tolerance – both because there’s need for it in order to keep relative peace and because there’s exposure to others, hence less uncertainty.

No matter where you come from, you can improve your ambiguity tolerance to better adapt to places and situations that are strange to you.

In other words, you can improve your coping mechanisms instead of simply avoiding uncertainty.

Developing Ambiguity Tolerance

The following are some key ways in which to tolerate ambiguity:

  • Do Suspend Judgment – As we’ve spoken about previously, judgment in uncertain times (like now, during this pandemic) or in uncertain environments (like multicultural ones) does nothing but shut done your tolerance. Remaining neutral in your expression of personal opinions about the norms/behaviors of others and other cultures allows room to breathe and grow. When you leave your mind open, you enable yourself to explore the wider world rather than locking into a narrow mindset.
  • Don’t Assume – We all know what assuming does. Instead of assuming certainty about everything going on around you – assuming you know what and why and how things are happening – learn how to ask questions. Listen instead of speaking. Dig deeper, ask “why,” and encourage others to “tell me more.”
  • Do Consciously Relax – Those raised in rule-based cultures like things to be cut and dry. Those raised in low ambiguity tolerance cultures like one Truth as opposed to many truths. Stretching oneself outside of fixed ideologies causes stress, so learning how to deal with that stress takes conscious effort. Use meditation and deep breathing exercises – or any other personal relaxation methods – to help you de-stress and remain calm when you’re stretched. Making these conscious efforts will help you cope in cross-cultural environments and in uncertain times.
  • Don’t Hurry Yourself – Slow down. Now, is not the time to rush things. While you might be of the mantra that “time is money,” it’s important to slow down when the times or the environment calls for it. Taking time to examine, reflect, and give your full attention and care to cultures, people, and situations of uncertainty will ease the additional stress that a time-sensitive nature causes. Don’t be in a hurry to change yourself or to fully understand; allow yourself the time and care to adapt.

Uncertainty Avoidance and Ambiguity Tolerance: Accepting Uncertainty in a Foreign Culture

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.

The Second Principle of Cultural Acceptance: Accepting Ambiguity

How do you measure greatness?

Last week, we discussed how “the best” nations on Earth may quantify that quality.

Is “the best” measured in dollars? Is it measured in happiness? If so, how should happiness be measured?

The point made is that “bestness” and happiness are subjective and immeasurable.

So, when our views are ethnocentric and judgmental about other cultures as compared to our own, this sense of “better” and “worse” only exists in the context of one’s own cultural values and norms.

What is deemed “good” in your country may be viewed as “bad” in another.

Rather than working to uncover some objective methodology to judge another’s culture, it’s best not to judge at all.

As the great philosopher, Thumper, once said, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

You might use Thumper’s wisdom to improve your thinking processes and become less judgmental and critical when living and working in a foreign culture.

Second Principle

This is where acceptance comes in.

Forget the concepts of “better” and “worse” when working through cross-cultural differences. View conflicting issues, instead, as just…differences.

Some cultures see alcohol as sinful; others think a regular glass of red wine with dinner a few times a week is healthy.

These are just different cultural values and norms.

Queuing is law in some cultures; in others, it’s a mere suggestion.

Again, these are just different cultural values and norms.

Of our “Four Principles of Cultural Acceptance,” after refraining from judgment, we must also accept ambiguity when working in a foreign culture.

Accepting Ambiguity

Uncertainty, confusion, and the unknown are not easily acceptable concepts for the human mind.

Our brains love order and familiarity. We want the puzzle pieces to fit together, so the big picture will emerge.

We want to know what’s going on around us, so that understanding will return.

That’s why, when we are confronted with uncertainty in a multicultural environment, we seek out answers, explanations, or a pattern we can recognize.

Unfortunately, these things may not be there.

This is why coming to terms with ambiguity is essential when in a foreign environment.

In order to accept ambiguity, you must relinquish control. Although a solution may not be guaranteed, clarity only happens when you are not rigid in your own preconceptions and, instead, move out of the way for new connections to emerge.

Accepting ambiguity also means you must allow one question to have many answers. As in life, most everything does.

Next week, we’ll talk about how research has delved into the concept of ambiguity tolerance. Stay tuned.

The Four Principles of Cultural Acceptance: Becoming Culture-Neutral

Are you having trouble with cross-cultural acceptance when managing or working in a foreign culture?

Coping strategies are necessary to promoting tolerance and helping you move past any cross-cultural hang-ups and ethnocentricity.

Last week, we talked about Acceptance: the First Step in Cross-Cultural Management.

We’ll expand on that step this week by diving into our four principles of cultural acceptance.

The Four Principles

Cultural acceptance strategies involve four key principles:

  • Don’t judge
  • Accept ambiguity
  • Tolerate actively
  • Explain yourself

In the coming weeks, we’ll look more closely at these principles, starting today with judgment.

Why Shouldn’t We Judge?

Cross-cultural management requires you to step out of your narrow ethnocentric tunnel-vision and accept other worldviews as viable alternatives to your own.

It requires you to recognize other cultural value systems and behavioral norms as valid.

And this acceptance inherently means you do not judge. You become “culture-neutral,” not relegating things to boxes of “good” and “bad,” but simply viewing them as facts of life.

Monkeys do not pass judgment in the zoo. They just go about their business, as do the other zoo animals.

While it may seem apparent that passing judgment will get you nowhere as a manager in a foreign culture, you’d be surprised how often we are naturally inclined to do so.

In practice, avoiding judgment is difficult and must, at least initially, be an active endeavor.

This is because the culture you are raised in is the “right” one, the “best” one…at least, that’s what each and every one of us has been taught.

What Is The Best Country on Earth?

When you ask someone, “What is the number one country?” the citizens of every nation on Earth will likely answer, with conviction, that it’s their own. 

Nationalism is a strong byproduct of primary conditioning.

But let’s look at this objectively.

First off, how do you define “number one”?

Some might define it monetarily.

So, looking at the wealthiest countries per capita, you will find that Luxembourg comes out on top, followed by Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, and Iceland:

  • Luxembourg (GDP per capita: $119,719)
  • Norway (GDP per capita: $86,362)
  • Switzerland (GDP per capita: $83,832)
  • Ireland (GDP per capita: $81,477)
  • Iceland (GDP per capita: $78,181)

Does this mean Luxembourg is the best country in the world?

If you’re resoundingly shaking your head “no”, you might believe happiness is the “number one” country criteria. And in judging happiness, you could consider country suicide rates as an indicator of a nation’s overall happiness.

In that case, you’d see the countries with the lowest suicide rates are not the wealthiest:

  • Antigua and Barbuda (0.5%)
  • Barbados (0.8%)
  • Grenada (1.7%)
  • Bahamas (1.7%)
  • Jamaica (2.2%)

In fact, Luxembourg (13.5%), Norway (12.2%), Switzerland (17.2%), Ireland (11.5%), and Iceland (14%) don’t even crack the top 10.

Does this mean Antigua and Barbuda is the best country in the world?

And does this data indicate that happiness does not correlate directly with wealth? If so, what makes a country “number one”? Should wealth be the criteria of what’s “best”? Should happiness? Should either?

Putting everything into perspective like this will encourage you to look past your preconceived notions and avoid passing judgment. Because nationalism might inform you that your country is number one, but the numbers tell another story.

We’ll talk more about this powerful “no judgment” principle next week.

Acceptance: The First Step in Cross-Cultural Management

The first step in bridging any conflict is acceptance.

Acceptance does not necessarily mean approval; it just means you are not whipping out your red pen and labeling something “bad” or “wrong” before engaging with it in a thoughtful manner.

Acceptance means tolerance.

When you’re no longer actively butting your head against something unmovable, you are demonstrating your willingness to engage with that with which you are unfamiliar or may not inherently agree.

And to work in a cross-cultural environment, you will have to engage in various ways. Change is inevitable.

So, how do you relinquish judgment and accept another culture’s values and norms?

Good vs. Bad; Right vs. Wrong

Cultural values define what’s good and bad, what’s right and wrong, making each of us innate judges of other people’s behavior and character.

This judgment becomes even starker in another culture when the people aren’t playing by the same rules. Their “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” are not the same as that of the foreigner who is passing judgment.

In a sense, when managing in a foreign culture, you are entering a world of moral ambiguity.

How do you navigate it?

Morality in Question

You aren’t likely to encourage debates of morality in a professional setting while working abroad. But that doesn’t mean your conscience won’t awaken when faced with another culture’s values.

We’ve discussed some of the differences across cultures in our self-assessment over the past couple weeks.

These profound conflicts of conscience might affect you outside of the workplace or inside it.

For instance, you might face the following questions:

  • Does the culture in which you are working consider gifts bribes?
  • Are your competitors circumventing the tax laws in this country? And does that mean you should follow suit, so as not to be at a competitive disadvantage?
  • Are women treated as inferior to men in the company?
  • What is the dress code like? Are public-facing jobs expected to dress professionally…and what does that even mean in this culture?
  • What if your company is manufacturing a product that directly conflicts with your cultural values (drugs used for executions, for instance)?

Here’s the thing: as a foreign manager in another culture, you aren’t going to click your fingers and change the societal values and norms by acting against the grain.

Nor should you completely abandon your convictions, because your values and norms are a substantial part of you.

All you can do is cope, which comes in the form of accepting, adapting to, and adopting the culture wherever you can.

We’ll expand on the four principles of cultural acceptance next week.

The Three A’s: Developing Personality Traits to Manage Successfully Across Cultures

Last week, we discussed that managers who lead successfully across cultures often demonstrate the following qualities: empathy, flexibility, emotional stability, open-mindedness, and social initiative.

Does this describe your personality?

If your answer is ‘yes’, then great! You’ll probably make an exceptional leader, no matter what cultural environment you find yourself managing in.

But if you find you’re lacking in some (or all) of these personality traits, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve upon them and succeed as a leader across cultures.

To do so, consider the Three A’s.

The Three A’s

In this blog, we often discuss accepting, adapting, and adopting culture – the three A’s.

Whether or not you naturally possess personality traits that assist cross-cultural integration, abiding by these three A’s will improve your efforts. In doing so, you will avoid Monkey Moments. You’ll also more successfully manage in a foreign culture and generally improve your cross-cultural skills.

Accepting, adapting, and adopting enable you to methodically face cultural conflicts head-on, rather than just winging it and hoping for the best.

Ask Yourself…

The following statements are binary: you may lean more strongly to one side or the other. The stronger you lean toward either side, the harder it will be for you to integrate into a foreign culture.

If you find both extremes to be acceptable, then you are demonstrating cultural competence.

Finding another’s values/norms acceptable doesn’t mean you must find them “right”; it just means you are willing to override your own cultural ethnocentricity, boundaries, education, and convictions, in order to properly accept, adapt, and maybe even adopt another’s.

As with last week’s self-assessment, note to what degree you agree with the following statements:

  • Everyone is responsible for their own actions.” / “Fate determines the outcome of events.”
  • “Asking direct questions is the best method to attain information.” / “It is rude/intrusive to ask direct questions.”
  • “Being vague in your responses is dishonest.” / “Avoiding answering directly/honestly prevents hurt and embarrassment.”
  • “Punctuality and efficiency are virtues demonstrated by intelligent people.” / “Spending time with the people you love is more important than punctuality.”
  • “Being on a first-name basis shows friendliness and familiarity.” / “Addressing people by their first name is disrespectful.”
  • “It is important to maintain eye contact with people who are speaking.” / “Direct eye contact with those of higher status is impolite.”

After reading through these binary statements, do you find either side completely unacceptable? Or is the opposite extreme something you’d not only be willing to accept but to adapt to?

If you’re leaning toward the latter, tune in next week as we discuss more in depth how to accept and adapt to another culture.

Assessment: Can You Accept, Adapt, and Adopt Across Cultures?

Not all personalities perform well in a cross-cultural environment.

Research finds that managers with the following qualities achieve the best performance:

  • Social initiative
  • Emotional stability
  • Open-mindedness
  • Flexibility
  • Empathy

Transitioning across cultures is not easy, and often managers who are sent to work in a cross-cultural environment are chosen for their business acumen, rather than any inherent cross-cultural skills or adaptability they may possess.

While companies do require managers abroad to know their business, their cross-cultural skills are equally important.

Sometimes successful leadership in one’s home country does not necessarily transfer over to, say, Japan, Germany, or Brazil.

Each of these countries has different cultural values and norms, and if the manager doesn’t have the skills required to accept, adapt, or adopt aspects of the culture, they will fall flat as a foreign manager.

Self-Assessment

Perhaps, you’re not sure if you possess the qualities that are key to cross-cultural leadership.

To self-assess whether your personality is compatible to lead across cultures, read the hypothetical scenario and then answer honestly.

Grief Across Cultures

Grieving processes differ across cultures.

Consider your own culture’s appropriate grieving process.

Do mourners grieve openly and emotionally? Or do they grieve quietly and stoically?

Now, imagine you are from the West, and you’re organizing a relative’s funeral.

The West approaches grief in a somber and communal fashion. Funerals usually involve family and relatives joining either in a congregation or funeral hall, saying prayers, sharing memories, crying. But this is often the extent of the communal grieving process. 

Now, consider that the Middle Eastern partner of your relative invites her family to the funeral.

Middle Easterners show grief by moaning and crying out during communal services.

When they grieve this way at the funeral, do you find their actions disrespectful? As the funeral’s organizer, would you be upset that your own family was perhaps uncomfortable with this demonstrative grieving? Would you attempt to adapt the funeral to accommodate different forms of grief?

If you were to attend a funeral in the Middle East, would you adhere to your own cultural norms when mourning, or would you mirror your hosts and express your grief in a similar fashion?

If you are silent, your hosts might find your solemn behavior as disrespectful. Are you alright with this interpretation?

Do you think you could become accustomed to these behaviors if you lived in the Middle East for a time? If so, would you be open to adopting the behaviors when they became natural to you?

Now, consider other foreign funerary customs. For instance:

  • The Benguet of the Philippines blindfold the departed and seat them on a chair beside their home’s main entrance.
  • The Vaisravana Buddhists of Tibet and Mongolia perform a “sky burial,” ritually dismembering the departed and leaving the body on a mountaintop for vultures to take.
  • The Malagasy of Madagascar exhume their departed every couple of years in an event called “the turning of the bones,” in order to dance with them along to live music.

Would you be able to accept, adapt to, or adopt any of these cultural funerary customs?

The answer to this question will give you an idea about where you draw the line and how you might fair in a foreign environment.

What if the above qualities are not your strengths?

Never fear; next week, we’ll talk about developing the skillset to build these qualities.

Breaking Down the Barriers of Ethnocentricity: Accepting, Adapting, or Adopting Culture

In the West, particularly in America, equality is highly valued.

Being as such, although gender equality is not exactly level anywhere in the world, when entering into cultures where that disparity is even greater than one’s own (Islamic cultures, for instance), a Westerner’s moral nerve is struck.

In another vein, consider a Westerner entering into a culture with a strictly set social caste system. This, too, strikes a nerve, regarding this value of equality.

When a culture’s values or norms contradict another’s deeply-ingrained values, reserving judgment often proves difficult.

Now, imagine a company wanting to do business in a culture in which their values are opposed.

Last week, we talked about how a culture’s social environment can influence everything from gender roles to social mobility and nepotism in the workplace.

This week, we’ll discuss how to break down the barriers of ethnocentricity.

Morality & Ethnocentricity

When contrasted with your own ethnocentric values, social structures in the workplace can be difficult to get on board with.

Why?

Because, as mentioned above, they hit a moral nerve.

An enormous social divide must be bridged in order for a company to work across cultures of disparate values, and in order for the individuals in these businesses to be willing to overlook their own ethnocentricity and avoid criticizing the opposite culture’s fundamental beliefs.

While the broader company may have an easier time looking the other way, the cross-cultural divide may not be as easy to bridge for the individuals working for these companies.

Although these individuals may not be expected to accept the other culture’s values, succeeding cross-culturally in a business setting requires restraint in projecting one’s own values onto the issues at hand.

So, how to show that restraint when your moral nerve is struck?

Be Aware & Proceed with Caution

As we’ve discussed in this blog, the volume of one’s awareness must be turned up several decibals when working cross-culturally.

Being aware of cultural differences, especially the subtle ones, is essential to breaking down the barriers of ethnocentricity. And that means being aware of both the differences and the nuances behind these differences.

After awareness comes a choice: what reaction do you want to have toward these differences?

Here are the only choices if you hope to succeed:

  • Accept the differences without criticizing or condemning them.
  • Adapt your behavior to the cultural difference.
  • Adopt your host culture’s values.

Needless to say, condemning the differences will get you nowhere. If you are doing business in another culture, you can’t expect that culture to shapeshift around you. The culture may evolve in its own time and become more aligned with your cultural values, but it’s not going to change for you.

With these three choices in mind, next week we’ll talk more specifically about how you can use these tactics to react to cultural differences in a diplomatic manner, avoid breaking an ankle on your own tripwire of ethnocentricity, and successfully work across cultures.

Technology, Social Environments, and the Character of Communication in Culture

Do you view technology as positive or negative in terms of communication?

How does your culture’s social environment dictate aspects of upward mobility and nepotism?

Last week, we talked about nonverbal communication in culture. This week, we’ll discuss how a culture’s technological and social environments direct the ways in which a culture communicates.

Technology

In the West, the ethnocentric view of technology is largely positive.

Workplaces, friends, family. Personal and professional environments are all connected by technology.

Technological implementations and other modernizations gear businesses and societies toward the future. And Western cultures are generally future-oriented, as are their values.

However, visit countries in central Africa, and you might find skepticism about technology. The physical environment, rather than the virtual environment, is more highly valued in such countries.

East Asian cultures typically try to balance both environments equally – the existing traditional environment and the new technological one – as they are considered equally important.

Aside from technology, what workplace factors does a culture’s social environment dictate?

Social Environments

According to a culture’s social environment, various levels of value are placed on:

Each of these plays its role in a culture’s workplace environment.

We’d like to think in Western cultures that it’s not who you know but what you know that gets you hired, as this seems fair and just – justice being a cornerstone value of many Western cultures.

We also know that’s not always the case. Networking can often get a foot in the door more so than one’s own merit. That being said, nepotism is still not favored, due to cultural values of equality.

However, in many different cultures – in Latin America or Africa, for instance – familial ties are often a job qualifier, and there’s nothing wrong with that, even in the case of a better-qualified candidate.

Those cultures who place value on familial ties view nepotism as a demonstration of commitment to family. There is also generally more trust in a family unit than there might be hiring a stranger from the outside.

In those cultures with a low concept obligation to family, social mobility is more accessible by everyone, as those who are willing to actively work toward their ideal career should theoretically be able to climb the ladder of success.

That’s the “American Dream” in a nutshell.

As you might guess, these contrasting views and values can hit a nerve in cross-cultural environments. We’ll talk more about how to lessen the blow next week.

Nonverbal Communication Cues in Culture

Physical contact, personal bubble, power distance.

All of these aspects are nonverbal behavior specific to culture.

And they tend to make cross-cultural communication all the more complicated. They may even go so far as to produce misunderstandings.

Power Distance

One example of nonverbal communication that differs from your own culture is another’s power structure.

Culture views authority differently, and you must be able to adapt, as a sense of social ranking and authority enters into communication across cultures.

For example, a culture’s valuation of authority can impact the speed at which a message is delivered and answered, as well as who is the ultimate recipient.

In Sweden, there is a more decentralized authoritarian structure that aims for a participative management model.

But if you are, say, French, with a stricter authoritarian model, coming into this flatter structure would be difficult to navigate.

Your status quo is broken down. Your ethnocentric beliefs are thrown.

In order to thrive, you must be able to move past your own power structure and adapt to another’s.

Let’s look at some other nonverbal behaviors to consider.

Nonverbal Behaviors

What is an acceptable dress code in the workplace?

Is it considered rude to maintain eye contact?

What sort of personal space do you give others?

How about touching? What’s appropriate and what is not?

Each of these things is a nonverbal behavior standard to each culture. In other words, they are the norm.

Due to ethnocentrism, you’re likely comfortable in your own culture’s nonverbal communication norms and, unless the other culture’s norms are a carbon copy of your own, uncomfortable in theirs.

You may even consider another culture’s nonverbal communication cues as distasteful or wrong. And you probably can’t help but instinctively feel that way.

But you can adapt, and here’s how.

Physical Touch

Consider this: you grew up in a family that doesn’t hug often. They were loving and supportive, but they simply didn’t show it through physical touch.

You make a group of friends. They often hug you, but it makes you feel uncomfortable. You allow the gesture, but you’re stiff and formal about it. It was never part of your primary socialization, so you are reluctant to broach another’s personal space in this way and to have yours broached.

Over time, however, this familiarity becomes more and more natural with this friend group. You may start to like the feeling of connection and grow comfortable and accepting of this nonverbal behavior. You may even like it so much that you initiate, despite it not being the norm of your personal identity.

Similarly, when it comes to the norms of other cultures, you may feel that discomfort and reluctance at first to embrace certain aspects of nonverbal communication cues.

Over time, however, who knows? They may become part of you.