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.

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.

Viewing Others Through Your Own Culture-Tinted Glasses

It’s human nature to consider yourself and your culture “normal,” and others as strange or foreign. Because they are just that – foreign to you.

But believe it or not, you are not “normal.” Not necessarily, anyway.

Normal behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and ways are relative to culture. Culture shapes our world and our worldview. What is considered normal or preferred in one culture will be viewed as abnormal and odd in another.

The following three tips will help you view others without judgment, even while looking through your own culture-tinted glasses.

Tip 1: Remember YOU are the Monkey

In my book, I am the Monkey, I break down what it means to integrate into a new culture through a zoo analogy.

When you enter a foreign culture, you may feel like the spectator in the zoo – the human, not the animal. You might believe yourself normal and even superior to the culture around you, while considering your colleagues all odd ducks. But, in reality, you are the monkey. You’re the “abnormal” one.

While you judge the culture into which you’re integrating, it’s important to remember that you’re in their territory. They’re the normal ones here, and you are the monkey that’s out of place.

Remind yourself this, as you don your culture-tinted glasses: whenever you’re a guest in a foreign land, you are being judged according to their cultural values and norms (which we’ll discuss later on in this blog).

Tip 2: Take Baby-steps to Integrate

A monkey who starts learning how to get around isn’t likely to be swinging from limb to limb like Tarzan straight away. Don’t get frustrated by this, and don’t lash out at your host country’s culture.

That’s easier said than done. You will get frustrated at times – with yourself, with your hosts, with the culture – but don’t allow that frustration to become a brick wall to successful integration.

Make an effort to learn the language and customs. These are the first baby-steps to learning the culture and viewing it without judgment.

Tip 3: Remove Your Culture-tinted Glasses

Once you’ve begun the process of integration, it will soon be time to remove your culture-tinted glasses. And that’s what this blog is all about: helping you to live and manage across cultures by integrating to the point that you start to see the culture through its own eyes, instead of your own near-sighted bias.

You can do this through the five steps outlined in my book:

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I’ll talk about these steps in greater detail over the coming weeks.