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So, What is Uncertainty Avoidance?
In this article I will address the following points:
- What is meant by uncertainty avoidance?
- Hofstede’s cultural dimensions.
- High uncertainty avoidance.
- Low uncertainty avoidance.
- Uncertainty avoidance examples.
From all of Professor Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, I find uncertainty avoidance the most difficult one to explain.
The reason for this is that most people seem to associate this fourth of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions with only formal rules and not with the many more informal rules that a society has.
But before we continue let’s start with a definition. For this, where else to go for that other than Wikipedia?
What is Uncertainty Avoidance?
“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 try to cope with anxiety by minimizing uncertainty.”
However, to a lot of people, the above is just an academic definition. For that reason, when it comes to Hofstede’s cultural dimensions, the other three are easier and better defined (I’m talking about Power Distance, Individualism, and Masculinity).
Given this, here is my own take on how to explain this using easier language:
There’s a saying that says: there are only two things in life certain: Death & Taxes.
About the rest, we’re not sure.
Therefore 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’ll come to it.” Because of this attitude, these countries will score relatively low on this dimension.
On the other hand, 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 cultural dimension.
Three Problems With Hofstede’s Cultural Dimension
There are three major problems with this dimension. These add to the complexity of really understanding this.
- Everyone thinks that their country has a lot of rules. This is, however, a very subjective viewpoint. Objectively there are vast differences in the number of rules a country has. In actual fact, there are countries that really have fewer rules than others.
- The second issue is that most rules that we have are not formal rules. To have a maximum speed limit is a formal rule. How we meet and greet is not a formal rule, but it is a rule. This also goes for the “rule/ritual” of wine tasting in a restaurant.
- The last issue is that countries that score high, might not always follow the formal rules. There are simply too many of them. And therefore, 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. Hence low scoring on this dimension. Whilst the opposite is actually true. Mediterranean countries are all high uncertainty avoidance countries.
Italy, Greece, and Spain all have a relatively high uncertainty avoidance score.
What they see is that Mediterranean countries are somewhat chaotic. So, the perception of someone from the West is that if a country is chaotic, then their score cannot be high uncertainty avoidance.
In other words, 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. Or: It’s chaotic and unorganized, so there must be few rules, right?
But the opposite is often true. Countries that may look disorganized from the outside usually do (!) have a lot of rules. Cultures that score high on uncertainty avoidance often have so many rules that 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 only here.
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 you properly pour a glass of wine and taste it).
- Security (avoiding the unfamiliar). Rather than taking risks, people prefer to stick to 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).
You can see that it says “Structure, rules, expertise” under high uncertainty avoidance cultures. In short, cultures with 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 scoring countries
Some low uncertainty avoidance characteristics are mentioned below:
- Few rules, and little structure. That makes sense, right?
- 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:
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).
To Risk or Not to 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 cultural dimension of Hofstede.
Want to Know More? Get the Book
If you want to read more on this very difficult cultural dimension and what influence it has on 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
- Consumer Behavior and Uncertainty Avoidance
- The Rule of Law, the Country, and Uncertainty Avoidance
- Uncertainty Avoidance, Health, and Happiness
- UAI (Uncertainty Avoidance) in the Workplace
- 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.
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I understand it to be related to resilience (without value attached here!) in the face of stressful factors, or at a time when flexibility and “out-of-the-box-thinking” is needed. As in, cultures with higher uncertainty avoidance indeces would prefer to avoid that which is not per se predictable — since it would be considered to be a source of stress (rather than of creativity, etc.).
Thanks for your persistance in getting your comment in!
Hofstede’s 5 dimensions are a model with all advantages and disadvantages of a model. I translate the uncertainty avoidance with ‘risk taking’even though risk taking has a negative connotation. And I think you can find pretty good examples to illustrate what uncertainty avoindance could be: eg for Belgium the today’s announcement of the National Bank: the sum of 218 billion Euro on Belgian safings accounts in a country of 11 Million inhabitants speaks for itself 🙂
Or take a look into other ideas about cultural differences: Rosinski’s Coaching across Cultures is another approch to understand Culture.
Thanks for your comment and example. The Belgians. Our almost solve the economic crisis by themselves.
Seems to interest Belgians!
I think the dimension is very personal as well, about how people feel/ react in unknown situations. Also, how much do we trust people?
Look at the number of laws and regulations in a state or organisation: if high, there is a need to try to control the uncertainties (what do we do if…?). Look around ij your office building: information about what to do in case of fire?…)
At the same time, the more rules there are, the less respect there is for these rules (just another one). Countries with high UAI accept all the new directives from the EU, whereas a country like GB is always “against”: they say “do we need another law/ rule?
Even if we don’t respect rules, we still have a psychological need for them. Take the example of speed limits: oh yes, of course we should heve them, but that doesn’t mean we respect them!
History probably explains why the scores are high in some cultures (Latin cultures), but at the same time it is very very individual.
A good example is also: do we need to carry an identity card with us at all times? Why? this correlates with UAI.
Thanks for your comment!
I think if you ask any one from any Country/Culture they will confirm that their Culture has a lot of rules. This is never objective.
In comparing them you can see the difference (like your example with carrying an ID card).
In Belgium one has to prove relevant business understand before being allowed to start a business as a sole trader without limited liability.
Accepted accreditation can be:
– university degree
– passing an examination administered by the state.
– having a family member proxy for you who has experience ( e.g sibling or spouse. ) who satisfies the earlier criteria.
Starting a limited company one needs a degree and have to inject a minimum paid up capital of EUR18,550 (SPRL), while a joint-stock corporation (SA) requires EUR65,550.
Having no formal education precludes any opportunity to start a business. You won’t find any Gates or Brandsons from Belgium, or they leave 🙂
Why is this? Reducing risk.
Compare this to the anglosphere.
I think uncertainty avoidance has deep roots in biology, i.e.: in our DNA. Humans are perhaps the most timid of all the primates and we’ve been successful and survived because we’ve leveraged that into audacity, group protection, problem-solving for difficult environments and other strategic behaviors, due to the inherited limbic system. We also have great cultural development, cultural variety and cultural success because we are so un-instinctual; i.e.: we learn to control our responses despite our limbic systems. The whole stupid nature/nurture debate is a bit of Occidental cultural Manichaeanism: our cultures allow us to negotiate a balance of both.
I for one am a mostly introverted person who has taken risks in part because of my Anglo-American cultural upbringing (and many people thus think i’m an extravert) and prefer the sense of certainty of life in Latin America, because of my personality AND my latino heritage. Or is it a rich mix of all of those? I am not ever 100% in agreement with Geert’s analysis of his research (i even question the validity of his research, its inherent biases and mis-uses) but i think this part of his studies merits a lot richer analysis and a subtle, nuanced interpretation of what “rules” (defined as that which can be broken; e.g.: we don’t make rules about obeying gravity — it’s the law.) are, how they function, how they interact with contrasting myths and norms and values of a culture. It’s much too complex ever to put into either/or predictions.
It’s part of the managerial culture’s desire to reduce uncertainty that they want us to produce trainings that will give clear, fixed, totally predictable answers about that great unknown, the individual (whether employee, customer, or boss).
PS: BTW, i think of the USA as a society that has moved greatly toward higher intolerance of uncertainty. People are becoming much more rigid, timid in their willingness to risk their true values and their comforts, polarized in their opinions and unwilling to risk compromise, expecting things to reward them as planned and unable to respond with resilience when 2008 happens, more conformist in self-expression. This of course is reflected by even greater anti-authoritarian youth movements (Goths and the whole gamer culture as well as extreme “sports”), more opportunity for risk-taking entrepreneurial types and bigger non-juridical punishments for those who overstep the bounds (and don’t make $1000000). People’s self-perception is often 180 degrees different from what the mirror would show them.
My understanding of ‘Uncertainty Avoidance’ = is this a ‘prevention is better than cure’ culture? or is it a ‘go for it!’ culture? Yes, there may be an individual/personal factor involved; however, from an anthropological/sociological point of view this dimension is similar to the ‘control nature v nature controls’ dimension (Fons Ttrompenaars Internal v External Control).
Cultures that score high on UA tend to have, what I call, an ‘engineer’s mindset’ and are long-term thinkers. There are exceptions, of course, but it is about the extent to which risk-taking and flexibility are acceptable. Styles of entrpreneurship are amrked by this.
Where I live (Barcelona) the local Catalans are much longer-term thinkers and more engineer-like culturally than the Spanish (with the exception ot the Basques and those groups that belong to the ‘Catalan mentality’). NZ, on the other hand is very much about ‘go for it’, ‘mend as you go’ and entrepreneurship; it is the result of its history. Of course another result of NZ’s history is the desire for social justice and this is what had led to many innovative, long-term thinking policies such as Women’s suffrage, the world’s first universal social security system… What a pity the neo-cons tried to change that.
Of course, when we talk about ‘long-term thinkers’ we need to be careful: as a Chinese student said to me recently “In comparison with China, the West has no idea what LTO means! The Chinese are certainly LTO, unlike many Asian cultures and are also more ‘Control Nature’ than ‘Nature in Control’ – this makes them very different from the Viet Namese, the Thais and other Buddhists IMHO.
Thanks for your elaborate and wide internationl comment.
It seems to me that this explains also some differences concerning engaging employees in the different countries that were mentioned. A lot of limiting beliefs, conditions and bias prevent qualified and competent people to get hired for a job. Not surprising that such people, for reasons of lack of self competence e.g. are not encouraged to start up their own business… Just my two cents.
E.g. in Belgium, you will be ‘condemned’ a lot faster as a job hopper while in The Netherlands, the same person will probably be considered as a someone with ‘a lot of experience’ or someone with the mindset of a project oriented person…
Thanks for your 2 cents 😉
I think you’re right in your end statement.
Job hopping is not seen as “damaging” to your career in NL as it might be in Belgium.
Thanks for the compliment!
Another cultural aspect that I associate with high uncertainty avoidance is a large, labyrinthine, all-encompassing and cumbersome bureaucracy. This is something you might not notice about another culture until you’ve spent some time there. But having lived in Spain and living now in France (high uncertainty avoidance cultures), I notice the two countries are the same in the way their entire society runs on the need for documents and endless photocopies of documents, even for very simple procedures. This kind of thing really rubs Americans (a low uncertainty avoidance culture) like myself the wrong way. Why is this an aspect of uncertainty avoidant cultures? For several reasons. One is that both Spain and France want everyone in the ‘system’, with the government knowing as much as possible about your personal situation. This allows for even greater measures against uncertainty like social security, universal health insurance, etc. which uncertainty avoidant cultures like to have for pretty obvious reasons–you know you’re covered by the state when anything bad happens. In the USA our system of government identification and major holes in the system of social security/government assistance would be unthinkable in a high uncertainty avoidance country. Think about how you can technically get around in the US without any sort of government-issued photo ID. If you’ve never passed a driver’s test and never asked for a state ID, you don’t have anything and no one forces you to get an ID. In Spain and France an ID is required at all times and everyone must get one automatically past a certain age.
Bureaucracy exists in the US too, but it doesn’t permeate everything like it does in high uncertainty avoidance cultures, where people get very nervous when a single document is missing, one that might possibly be needed one day in thirty years; when there is any possibility that you could be lying on one of your documents and therefore need five pieces of supporting documentation for the simplest procedure. To me all this seems to come from a kind of fear of anything going wrong. In the US, bureaucratic procedures go more smoothly because there is the general attitude of: well, if there’s a problem with your application, we’ll call you up and deal with it when it happens. It’s a culture that approaches everything with a “wait and see” attitude, because it knows that it’ll be able to handle any hurdles that arise along the way.
Very much agree with your point of view and examples.
Thanks for that.
I also agree with Koen’s observation about how high uncertainty avoidance cultures approach hiring people. Again, I can only draw from my experiences living in the US (low UA) and Spain and France (high UA). But in both Spain and France, there exists a fear of hiring or contracting anyone who might be the least bit unqualified for the position. To ensure as much as possible against any sort of incompetence, you must have the EXACT qualifications listed to land a job in Spain or France. To be hired for a marketing position you MUST have a marketing degree, no exceptions. If a position says you must have three years experience in almost exactly the same kind of position for the job you are seeking, there are no exceptions to that rule.
The US is extremely flexible where Spain and France are not. In the US you can technically major in almost anything and still get a job in a pretty different field, provided you have some other kind of experience to make up for having a different degree. Job hiring decisions tend to be made on more nebulous criteria like your personality, work ethic, and the employer’s general sense of how competent you are for the position. This is a risk-taking attitude: the employer accepts that they may be hiring someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing, while hoping that the new employee may bring some fresh insight to their business/organization.
Same as my previous reply to you: Agreed.
Thanks for leaving such elaborate comments!
So I have a question. What is the Credit Crisis, and how does that relate to United States’ low level on uncertainty avoidance?
Thanks for your comment and question.
Your question is easy. The answer a bit more difficult (especially if you want to keep it short.
So, I’ve decided to write a new blog post on the article. You can find it here: https://culturematters.com/uncertainty-avoidance-the-united-states-and-the-credit-crisis/
Let me know your thoughts (preferably via the new post).
I’m a Taiwanese who is studying now in France and set my thesis topic as how to increase the performance of the intercultural managements. And in fact I’m pretty surprised to see that China is listed into low score spectrum since I thought I understand Chinese culture more or less to some extent ( we had the same root and I would say also share some common characteristics)
And then I compared the scores that China , Taiwan and Korea have on the uncertainty avoidance, it turns out that China has a comparatively very low score to the other two countries.
Is there any reason that we can try to explain this?
Forgive my ignorance , but being an Asian , I did think that Asian countries would have more possibilities to have high score on this dimension.
For China , in the beginning I tried to think maybe it’s something related to the turning point from communism to capitalism , but this won’t be the case for India or Singapore.
Would you please share what you think with me ? Thank you !
Thank you for your comment to this article.
Your observations are correct when it comes to comparing China, Taiwan and Korea.
The question you ask “Why” this is, is very difficult to answer. Tracing back where cultural difference come from is hard, if not impossible.
I hold on more to whether you recognize the differences, and/or whether it is practical; in other words, can you use what you know now, to be more culturally competent.
As for your point on “the turning point from communism to capitalism”: Communism, or the imposing thereof, or the transition to capitalism is not related to Uncertainty Avoidance, but more to Power Distance; the first of Hofstede’s dimensions.
It is the government of China that imposed communism. And it is the government of China that said “now we’ll turn it into capitalism”.
Hope this helps.
High uncertainty avoidance leads to a demand for certificates. They are often hanged on walls in the office or in the sitting room.
Thanks for your comment.
I would think that you are partly right.
High scoring cultures do have a higher need for certificates, but more so in the form or “Attestations” and ISO certification. They indicate that things can be trusted, are real and that formalities are followed (in the case of ISO norms).
However, cultures scoring high on Masculinity (or Process versus Goals) have a greater need for certified achievements, like diploma’s. So called acquired status expressions. Often those can be found hanging on the wall (in the case of Anglo-Saxon countries).
Hope this helps.
High uncertainty avoidance = low risk taking
Low uncertainty avoidance = high risk taking
Is it true ?
Thanks for your comment.
In a way you’re right. However, you need to look at how you define “Risk Taking”.
Is bungy jumping risk taking? How about driving a car or getting onto an aircraft?
The three previous examples are not considered as risk taking but more as “Calculated Risks”.
You know that something can happen, but you’re willing to take the risk anyways.
In the above case Uncertainty avoidance has no influence on the level of calculated risks people take.
It becomes a different story when you’re looking at uncalculated risks. Like starting your own business, innovation, trying new things, bringing new “stuff” to the market.
All these things are considered as un predictable and there UAI does have an influence. Much like you say:
Low UAI = more uncalculated risk taking
High UAI = less calculated risk taking
Hope this helps!