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What is Uncertainty Avoidance?

In this article I will address the following points:

  • What is uncertainty avoidance
  • Hofstede cultural dimensions
  • High uncertainty avoidance
  • Low uncertainty avoidance
  • Uncertainty avoidance examples

From all of Professor Hofstede cultural dimensions, I find this the most difficult one to explain to people not familiar with this dimension.What is Uncertainty Avoidance

Reason being is that most people seem to associate this fourth of Hofstede cultural dimensions with only formal rules and not with the many more informal rules that a society has.

What is Uncertainty Avoidance

So let’s first start with a definition and where else to go there for than Wikipedia. This is their answer:

“In cross-cultural psychology, uncertainty avoidance is a society’s tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. It reflects the extent to which members of a society attempt to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty.”

With this, we’ve answered the question What is Uncertainty Avoidance.

However, to a lot of people, this is just an academic definition. When it comes to Hofstede cultural dimensions, the other three are easier, better defined (I’m talking about Power Distance, Individualism, and Masculinity).

So, I will give you my own take on how to explain this using an easier language:

There’s a saying that says that the only two things that are absolutely certain are death and taxes. About the rest, we cannot be sure.

Now, there are some countries that look at this and say: “fine, that’s all I need to know. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.” These countries will score relatively low on this dimension.

There are also countries that say: “if the only things certain in life are death and taxes, I need more predictability; I want to know what is around the curve“. These countries will score relatively high on this Hofstede cultural dimension.


Three Problems With Hofstede Cultural Dimensions

Given the above, there are three problems with this dimension, which add to the complexity of really understanding it.

  1. Everyone, irrespective of where they come from, thinks that there are a lot of rules in their country. This is a very subjective viewpoint. Objectively there are vast differences in the amount of rules a country has.
  2. The second issue is that most rules that we have are not the formal rules that we think of at first. The maximum speed limit is a formal rule. How we meet and greet is not a formal rule, but it is a rule.
  3. The last issue is that countries that score high might not always follow the rules that need to be followed. There are simply too many rules, and the individual could choose the rule that fits his current situation best.


High Uncertainty Avoidance

My experience is that Western Europeans and North Americans view Mediterranean countries as quite relaxed and therefore low scoring on this dimension. Whilst the opposite is true. Mediterranean countries all high uncertainty avoidance countries.

Italy Greece and Spain all have a relatively high uncertainty avoidance score.The same perception holds true for Westerns judging/guessing if a country scores high or low on this dimension if their perception of that country is somewhat chaotic. So if the perception of someone from the West is that the ”

The same perception holds true for Western Europeans and North Americans, judging/guessing if a country scores high or low on this dimension if their perception of that country is somewhat chaotic. So if the perception of someone from the West is that the country is chaotic, then their score cannot be high uncertainty avoidance.

So if the perception of someone from the West is that the “other” country is chaotic and/or not very organized, they will interpret that as being a low scoring country; it’s chaotic and unorganized, hence there must be little rules, right?

But the opposite is often true. Countries that may look disorganized from the outside usually do (!) have a lot of rules. Countries that score high on uncertainty avoidance even have so many rules that the people do not know what rules to stick to (because there are so many), so they pick and choose the rules that make the most sense to them at that moment. And just to make sure, I’m talking about official rules.


Uncertainty Avoidance Examples

Below are some high uncertainty avoidance characteristics.

  • Structure, rules, expertise: makes sense too, right? But not only formal rules (like the maximum speed on the freeway, but also informal rules like how do you properly pour a glass of wine and taste it).
  • Security (avoiding the unfamiliar): rather than taking risks, people prefer that what they know already.
  • Hectic: “life” is being perceived as hectic and stress full. Pretty much from all angles.
  • Emotions/passion: showing your emotions is seen as a way to blow off steam. Consider a minor car collision in Rome (high scoring) versus London (low scoring).

See that it says “Structure, rules, expertise” under high uncertainty avoidance cultures? The thing is that cultures that have a relatively high score on this dimension do have a lot of rules and regulations. But… they don’t always stick to those rules (depending on other cultural factors).


Examples of high uncertainty avoidance countries

  • Greece
  • Belgium
  • Russia
  • Italy
  • Korea
  • Mexico


Low uncertainty avoidance

Some low uncertainty avoidance characteristics are mentioned below:

  • Few rules, little structure: makes sense, right? uncertainty avoidance examples
  • Entrepreneurial: starting your own business is seen as very normal; the same goes for risk taking (no guts, no glory!).
  • Stress-free: people experience “life” as being relatively stress-free.
  • Cool, calm & collected: there is a premium in society to look Cool, Calm & Collected. Think of the British stiff upper lip.


Examples of low uncertainty avoidance countries:

  • USA
  • UK
  • India
  • China
  • Indonesia
  • Singapore


Uncertainty Avoidance Examples

If you’re only interested in getting some uncertainty avoidance examples, make sure to read this article (opens in a new window).


Risk or no Risk?

Low uncertainty avoidance cultures are generally higher risk takers than high scoring countries. Examples are the credit crisis that started in the US (a relatively low scoring country). Versus Belgium a (very) high scoring culture where the level of risk involved in mortgages is pretty much zero.

I hope that with this explanation of what is uncertainty avoidance, I was able to shed some light on the most difficult of Hofstede cultural dimensions.


Want to Know More? Get the BookUncertainty Avoidance in International Business

If you want to read more on this very difficult cultural dimension and what influence it has in doing business internationally, why not get the book? It’s titled “Uncertainty Avoidance in International Business: The Hidden Cultural Dimension You Need to Understand When Doing Business Overseas The book covers:

  • Rules and Bureaucracy
  • The Countries and Their Scores
  • Uncertainty Avoidance Correlations
  • The Difference Between Uncertainty Avoidance, Anxiety, Fear & Risk
  • Uncertainty Avoidance in and Around the House & School
  • Uncertainty Avoidance, Health, and Happiness
  • Uncertainty Avoidance in the Workplace
  • Consumer Behavior and Uncertainty Avoidance
  • The Rule of Law, the Country, and Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Lots of uncertainty avoidance examples
  • And more!

It’s exclusively available in the Amazon Kindle store. Click here to go there now.


Do you have questions about what is uncertainty avoidance or anything about culture? Let us know in the comments section below.

Chris Smit

I'm passionate about Cultural Difference. I have been helping organizations save time and money when they work Internationally for the last 19 years. I have had the fortunate opportunity to hold lectures, workshops, and consulting projects on this subject World Wide. It has made me understand my own culture much better, and appreciate the differences around the world.
I have a Master's Degree in Organisational Psychology and have lived in the USA, the Netherlands and, currently, in Belgium.
Thank you!

Chris Smit

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