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Uncertainty isn’t a quality. Or is it?

What is it that makes us feel uncertain? Is it the absence of information? Is it a limited capacity to describe a possible outcome?

We all are familiar with that feeling. But did you know that the way we experience such lack of certainty is a cultural affinity?

Another one of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory is called uncertainty avoidance. You might find it under the abbreviation UAI (I for index).

In my opinion, this is a fascinating dimension because there are clear indicators of a culture’s preferences, reflected in the behavior of society itself. After all, the goal is to reduce uncertainty in the lives of its members. How much reduction, is a matter of culture.

Here’s how Hofstede’s website defines UAI:

Uncertainty avoidance deals with a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity.
Uncertainty avoidance has nothing to do with risk avoidance, nor with following rules. It has to do with anxiety and distrust in the face of the unknown, and conversely, with a wish to have fixed habits and rituals, and to know the truth.

Are you still uncertain about how this dimension works? (No pun intended)

Let’s look at it this way: People coming from a culture with low UA let the future come without the urge to control or plan it. People coming from a culture with high UA have a high value on control and have a set structure in everything in their lives.

There is a direct relationship between UAI and the level of stress of individuals in each culture. People from high UA cultures show higher stress and anxiety levels. On the other hand, people from lower UI cultures show lower stress and anxiety rates.

Here’s a measure I’ve found useful: The higher the bureaucracy in a country, the higher UA. So, if you find yourself constantly filling a form to then be allowed to fill a form, you got your UAI right there.

The following graph compares UA for Canada, India, Mexico, and the USA.

Mexico stands out with a high UA. This means that Mexicans uphold rigid codes of belief and behavior and are less tolerant of unconventional behavior and ideas. Mexicans tend to show an emotional need for rules (even if such rules don’t seem to work). Resistance to innovation is not uncommon. Security (physical, financial, familiar) is highly regarded and is an important motivator.

Canada and the USA (India in less measure) are at the level known as moderate uncertainty avoidance, a third alternative to the two extremes I mentioned before. This means that we can see lower UA for some aspects of society and a higher UA for others.

There is a reasonable degree of acceptance for new ideas and innovations for Canadians and Americans, and they are usually willing to try new or different things; it could be technology, business practices, or food. They do not require a lot of rules and are less dramatic in expressing their emotions.

For India, imperfection is accepted, things don’t have to go as planned (not precisely, that is), and people have a high tolerance for the unexpected. In India, rules are often sidestepped, and people come up with innovative ways to bypass the system. The word “adjust” is used with several meanings, for example, turning a blind eye to rules or finding a unique and inventive solution to a big problem. There is a saying that “nothing is impossible as long as one knows how to adjust,” this speaks to a higher tolerance to uncertainty.

As for trivia, one of the countries with the highest UA is Russia, with 95. One of the lowest UA is Singapore, with 8.

To conclude, it is important to remind you of two things:

First, UA is not risk avoidance, although it is commonly associated with it. UA does not deal with risk avoidance at all.

Second, UA is one of many other elements of a cultural intelligence report and should be considered a generalization. Members of a given culture can have different degrees of compliance with the behaviors described for this and any other cultural dimension. There’s no right or wrong; it just is.

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