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.

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: Where Does Your Culture Fall Along the Scale?

Cultures differ.

That’s what Hofstede found in his research.

But in what dimensions can we categorize these differences?

And at what value does your culture fall along the scale?

Last week, we talked about how Hofstede’s research led him to designate four cultural dimensions.

With further research, he developed five.

Hofstede’s Five Cultural Dimensions

Hofstede’s five cultural dimensions scale the opposing extremes:

  • Uncertainty avoidance vs. uncertainty tolerance cultures –

We’ve talked extensively about uncertainty avoidance over the past few posts.

When valuing a culture’s uncertainty avoidance versus their uncertainty tolerance, ask yourself: Does the society prefer a stable environment? Is risk-taking avoided? Or does the culture promote innovation and demonstrate risk-taking behaviors and an ability to adapt quickly to uncertain events and changeable environments?

  • Long-term vs. short-term oriented cultures –

Some cultures want satisfaction here and now, while others are programmed to look toward the future.

Is this a culture of instant gratification? Or is the society accepting of delayed material, emotional, and social needs?

  • High-power distance vs. low-power distance cultures

Power distance has to do with a culture’s perception of the fair distribution of power. Some cultures strive for a level playing field, while for others, power is allotted to few.

Is equality preferred over hierarchy? Are subordinates accepting of their lower positions, or is there a more democratic power structure?

  • Collectivist vs. individualist cultures –

We’ve also discussed collectivist versus individualist cultures in this blog, with individualist cultures championing the success of the individual, while collectivist cultures are geared more toward the prosperity of the group.

Is the culture more family/group-oriented or does it promote individual ambition and achievement?

  • Masculine vs. feminine cultures 

The foundation of a masculine culture is based in more traditionally masculine traits and vice versa.

Does the culture thrive on competition and aggression? Or does it encourage cooperation and the nurturing of its community members?

Additional Cultural Dimensions

Piggybacking off of Hofstede’s research and insights, other researchers have identified further cultural dimensions, including:

  • Rule-based vs. relationship-based cultures –

In rule-based cultures, behavior is governed by rules and laws.

In relationship-based cultures, behavior is governed by one’s relationship with others.

  • Polite vs. rude cultures –

Polite cultures consider the feelings of others, while courtesy takes a backseat to justice in “rude” cultures.

Does the culture “turn the other cheek”? Or is “an eye for an eye” the motto?

  • Shame-based vs. guilt-based cultures –

Guilt-based cultures are primarily motivated by an internalized conscience, while the behaviors of shame-based cultures are motivated by the approval/disapproval of the group.

And the list goes on.

As research into cross-cultural differences progresses, the data discovered will, no doubt, paint a more intricate picture of the many dimensions in which cultures differ.

The data available to us now enables us to understand more clearly what motivates individuals from different cultural backgrounds – and how cultures operate, as a whole.

We’ll delve deeper into these dimensions next week.

The “Japanese Miracle” & “Culture’s Consequences”: Cross-Cultural Research Gains Ground

Imagine your country is number one.

Number one in economic growth.

That’s what Japan was experiencing between the end of WWII and the Cold War.

While the country was still behind the United States, it became the world’s second-largest economy after its defeat in WWII.

Termed the “Japanese Miracle,” Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman were so interested in this economic boom that they wrote a book about it.

In Search of Excellence was written in the early ‘80s. It concluded that the Japanese outperformance of the Americans in terms of growth was due to differences in culture.

Culture and cultural studies were finally becoming a focal point to more than only those who studied social sciences. Big corporate CEOs were starting to see cross-cultural research as a tool for success in business.

Culture’s Consequence

In walks Hofstede.

As we discussed last week, Hofstede had discovered differences in culture while analyzing the outcomes of a company-wide survey for IBM.

In doing so, he offered the first scientifically-founded analysis of cultural differences in the workplace.

In 1980, he also published a book, Culture’s Consequences. By the turn of the century, Hofstede’s work had been cited more than 2000 times, with no empirical work as influential in the fields of psychology or culture.

According to Hofstede’s research, nations differed in four cultural dimensions.

The dimensions denoted sets of values, scaled from one extreme to the other. After surveying the populous of various cultures, each nation was valued between these two poles.

One dimension involved “Uncertainty Avoidance” – to what degree a culture’s members are comfortable/uncomfortable in unknown, surprising, or situations that differed from their cultural norm.

This dimension suggests which cultures maintain tradition and fear change and which are open to risk-taking and innovation.

The dimension of Uncertainty Avoidance was discovered when Hofstede looked at the survey’s responses to questions about work-related stress.

An example of a work-related question in the survey:

How often do you feel nervous or tense at work?

Answers ranged from “I never feel this way” to “I always feel this way.”

Another correlating question asked whether one should break company rules if doing so was in the best interest of the company.

Further, employees were asked if they had long-term plans to stay with the company.

The Results

The survey found that some cultures appreciated change, and these were the same cultures that were less affected by stress.

Those cultures that avoided change and were more affected by stress were often also more bound by rituals, laws, bureaucracy, and tradition.

For example, Latin American cultures are layered in procedures and rules and are considered “uncertainty avoiding” cultures.

Next week, we’ll talk about more of the dimensions discovered by Hofstede.