“Should we try to control the future or just let it happen?” G. Hofstede

 

Before you read on, let’s start with a few questions.

It’s a Friday night. Do you go to your favourite restaurant and order your “go-to” dish that hits the spot every time? Or are you the adventurous type that’s happy to try any and every cuisine?

You’re making an important decision. Do you rely on an expert’s opinion? Or do you make the decision based on your own experience?

Things don’t go to plan. Do you get stressed out about it? Or do you go with the flow and see how things pan out? 

You’re probably thinking that it depends on your personality, habits and lifestyle. In a way, it does. But in fact, your culture plays a big part. To be precise, one characteristic of your culture in particular: Uncertainty Avoidance.

 

Woman standing at the shore deciding whether to swim in front of shark warning sign

 

What does Uncertainty Avoidance mean?

Uncertainty avoidance (UA) is one of five parameters that allow the analysis and comparison of cultures. The researcher Geert Hofstede 1 introduced it within his model of cultural dimensions.
 
UA reflects the extent to which a particular society accepts, or feels threatened by, the unknown, new and ambiguous
 
In the cultures that score high on UA, individuals try to minimise risks and take measures to prevent unpredictable events. Unstructured situations and actions cause anxiety and are undesirable. For this reason, people use careful planning, rules and regulations to keep everything under control.
 
At the other extreme are societies with a low UA index, which are more risk-taking. They welcome new experiences and adapt more easily to unfamiliar environments. They pick up trends and changes faster than their low-UA counterparts. These cultures also have quite relaxed attitudes towards rules and regulations.
 
 

graph showing uncertainty avoidance levels across different cultures and nationalities

 

Cultural Behaviours

To better understand this dimension, let’s look at its social implications.

Innovation and change.

Low-UA cultures are typically not afraid of transformation, they value creativity and innovation. They adopt trends and new technologies much faster than their opposites, the high-UA cultures. These high-UA cultures remain more conservative and reluctant to try something unfamiliar. Instead they stick to the proven, trusted options. This can create a challenge for marketers aiming to bring a new product/technology to international markets. Specifically, trying to introduce it to a high-UA society, who is often sceptical about innovations.

 

Finances.

Attitudes to saving money is another major manifestation of this cultural dimension. High UA cultures approach their financial operations, such as budgeting and saving, with a greater care. After all, having enough savings means better security of one’s future. These attitudes are not exclusive to individuals. Banks, for example, must have a thorough understanding of the values and needs of their target customers, to ensure their services are suitable for the relevant cultural groups.

 

 

Employment.

In the modern world, a stable job is the classic symbol of certainty and confidence in the future. In high-UA countries, many people would choose civil service – which guarantees job security – over a job in a private sector. Even if it’s better paid. A great example is Japan, where a position in a government ministry is considered more prestigious than building a corporate career2 .

 

 

 

Workplace and leadership.

There’s the potential for a big cultural clash within a multicultural workplace. For example if the management and employees belong to cultures with a different UA index. They will have conflicting expectations about fundamentals such as rules, planning and implementation. For instance, if the director is from a high-UA culture, the low-UA employee will perceive his management style as oppressive and rule-oriented. The director, in turn, won’t be satisfied with the “unreliable” and “irresponsible” employee.

 

Why is this so important to understand?

What we’ve discussed here is the tip of the iceberg. Understanding cultural differences is important in an infinite number of social situations. From business and marketing, to education, management, policy making, and many more. Once you understand a culture’s attitude to Uncertainty Avoidance, you can communicate more effectively and establish a deeper connection. Whatever your cross-cultural communications objectives, understanding your audience’s Uncertainty Avoidance is crucial to a successful outcome.

Learn how to connect with your audience

References:

Hofstede, G. (2001) [1984]. Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviours, Institutions and Organizations across nations. London: Sage. Yoshimura, N., & Anderson, P. (1997). Inside the Kaisha: Demystifying Japanese business behavior. Boston, Mass: Harvard Business School Press. 193.

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