Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Culture – Ambiguity and Anxiety

Dessert! Why wait?

Dessert! Why wait?

The future is uncertain. Eat dessert first.

If you act on this sage advice, you may well come from a culture that’s high on the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI). As Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede have pointed out, the desire to avoid uncertainty varies dramatically from culture to culture and fundamentally affects how people think and behave.

The Hofstedes (father and son) study the influence of national cultures on organizational behavior. They write that there are five basic dimensions of culture: 1) power distance; 2) individualist/ collectivist; 3) masculine/feminine; 4) Uncertainty avoidance; 5) short-term/long-term orientation. I’ve written about the first three previously (herehere, and here). Today, let’s talk about uncertainty avoidance.

The Uncertainty Avoidance Index measures the degree to which a culture believes that what’s different is dangerous. Countries with high UAIs tend to be anxious about ambiguity and the future in general. They often establish laws, behavioral codes, religions, and technologies that reduce ambiguity. Countries with high UAIs include Greece (UAI = 114), Poland (93), Japan (92), France (86), South Korea (85), Israel (81), and Italy (75).

Countries with low UAIs tend to believe that what’s difference is curious. They are generally less rules-oriented and less anxious about the future. They tend to see the world as a relatively benevolent place and to give the benefit of the doubt to new ideas, situations, and people. Countries with low UAIs include the United States (46), India (40), Great Britain (35), Ireland (35), Sweden (29), and Denmark (23).

Uncertainty avoidance expresses itself in many different ways. Very generally speaking, families in affluent countries with high UAIs have fewer children than those in affluent countries with low UA indexes. People in high UAI cultures tend to be more stressed and rules for children are quite firm. People in low UAI culture tend to be more agreeable and more blasé about children’s play habits. They worry less about health and money.

Let’s say you want to market a product internationally, including both low and high UAI countries. Your message will need to be very different. In high UAI countries, consumers will want to know about the purity and cleanliness of the product. They also value expert opinion in their advertising. In low UAI countries, consumers tend to seek convenience rather than purity and prefer humorous ads.

Similarly, consumers in low UAI countries find used cars acceptable and are more likely to be do-it-yourself enthusiasts. They also tend to be early adopters of new technologies. Consumers in high UAI countries tend to prefer new cars and hire experts to do their home repairs. They’re also slower to adopt new technologies.

In the workplace, differences are equally pronounced. High UAI cultures emphasize the importance of rules – even those that are not obeyed.  They also prefer more structure, precision, and formality. Managers should be technical experts and tend to focus on daily operations.

Low UAI cultures have fewer rules in the workplace and value managers who are known more for common sense than technical expertise. Managers focus more on strategy than daily operations. Low UAI workplaces tend to be better at inventing new processes but high UAI workplaces are better at implementing them.

It’s a very interesting mix, especially when you combine uncertainty with masculinity, individualism, and power distance. To learn more, get the Hofstede’s book.

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