How Culture Affects Caution: Uncertainty Avoidance

Previously, we explained the masculinity vs femininity cultural dimension and how you can avoid conflict caused by differences in this fundamental dimension.

In this post, we explain how your cultural programming affects your desire to control circumstances — and the impact this has on business.

Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI)

How comfortable a society is with uncertainty and ambiguity.

High uncertainty avoidance <——> Low uncertainty avoidance

High uncertainty avoidance = rigid codes of belief and behaviour; intolerance of unorthodox behaviour and ideas

Important values: strict laws and rules governing behaviour; fear of unknown or ‘different’ people, ideas, situations, places etc.; risk-avoidance; rules should be followed exactly; desire to control the unknown future

Low uncertainty avoidance = a relaxed attitude towards the unknown future, people and ideas

Important values: acceptance of different opinions, people, ideas, situations, etc.; tolerance, innovation, risk-taking; rules are only for general guidance; curiosity about the unknown future


The issue with this dimension is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen?

Business people and companies from cultures that have high UAI will be rigid about doing things exactly ‘by the book’ — following rules, regulations and procedures without flexibility. The rigidity comes from desire to control the future and fear of the unknown. Examples of countries and regions that score high in UAI are Russia, Serbia, France, Japan and most South American countries.

Business people and companies with low UAI, by contrast, are curious about what the future may hold. They tend to be open to new ideas and people, and flexible about changing plans and procedures — or operating without any plan at all! (In English, we call working without a plan ‘winging it’). Examples of countries and regions that score low in UAI are Great Britain, New Zealand, Slovakia, East and West Africa, and most Southeast Asian countries.

You can see how a clash could — and almost certainly will — occur when a company or person that needs a lot of certainty tries to do business with a company or person that is comfortable ‘winging it’.

So how can you adjust when doing business with someone from a different point on the Uncertainty Avoidance scale? Here are some tips.

1. The first step is to understand what your own personal culture is. How (un)comfortable are you operating without plans and changing direction spontaneously? How open are you to new ideas and people? Do you get angry when people don’t obey the rules or follow stipulated procedures?

2. As always, remember that the other person’s behaviour and attitude are cultural, not personal. And remember that your behaviour and attitude are conditioned by your cultural programming. No one is right, and no one is wrong. People simply have different perspectives.

3a. If you are quite comfortable with uncertainty, it is going to be easier for you to adapt to the other person’s preference for following procedures and planning carefully. It is much harder for someone whose cultural programming is high in UAI to change their behaviour. Therefore, do your best to find a way to work with them.

3b. If you recognise that your cultural programming is high in uncertainty avoidance, this is a very important first step to being able to work well with someone with low UAI. The best thing to do is to explain that planning and procedures are very important to you, and discuss how you can create a way of working together that is OK for both of you. You might want to write down what you agree.

The understanding of this cultural dimension is from the book Cultures and Organizations by Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede and Michael Minkov.

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