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.

Step 1 of Cross-Cultural Integration: Awareness

What happens when you wade into the waters of a new culture, one in which the waves are warmer or colder, one in which the fish are either all the same size and shade of neon, or where there are many different sizes, shapes, colors, and species?

How would you react to the change in the tide?

You’d likely feel like a fish out of water.

Heightened Awareness

When we’re put into an environment that’s unlike our own, it sets off our spidey-senses. Suddenly, our awareness is heightened, because everything that’s going on around us is all too different. And when something is a tiny bit off, it feels uncanny.

This can make us uncertain of our environment and uncomfortable in our own skin. Depending on the type of person you are – whether you’re adaptable or one who rarely leaves his/her indentation on the couch – the distinct awareness of all that is different may trickle in, little by little, or it may blast you with immediate discomfort and leave you soaking in anxiety.

Yes, living and managing in a foreign culture can be overwhelming. But it’s not impossible, even for those who live for their comfort zone.

The key is to use your spidey senses for good. Being culturally aware of your surroundings and behavior can help you limit – or even eliminate – the “monkey moments” you may encounter.

Monkey Moments

What’s a monkey moment?

Remember last week, when I said that you are the monkey in the zoo? Well, a “monkey moment” is when your monkey-ness is made clear and apparent to your host culture.

Your hosts are the spectators, remember; they’re the normal ones, the humans. So they’re watching and waiting for you to make a mistake, to behave like a monkey. They expect it from you. The moment you drop the ball, forget to be culturally aware, and start to fling your poo – that’s when they’ll see you for what you are.

While this isn’t to say you must abandon your culture, else your hosts won’t accept you, this is to say that being culturally aware will make you a more effective leader and integrator in a foreign culture.

Making Your Awareness Actionable

When you first arrive to your host country, you will see yourself as normal and the environment/the “other” as strange. This is instinctive. But you must remember:

What seems unfamiliar is not necessarily unnatural.

Knowing this will help you develop cultural sensitivity, which you’ll need in order to make your awareness actionable. I’ll discuss how to do that in next week’s blog.