“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.
What does Uncertainty Avoidance mean?
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.
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.
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 career (Yoshimura and Anderson 1997).
Workplace and leadership.
There’s the potential for a big cultural clash within a multicultural workplace if the management and employees belong to cultures with a different UA index. In that case, they will have conflicting expectations regarding fundamental work processes, 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.
Hofstede, G. (2001) . 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.