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Tolerance for Ambiguity

Tolerance for Ambiguity

Author: marlene johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the cultural worldview spectrum re: comfort with ambiguity or need for certainty in various situations.

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Video Transcription

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It can be helpful to understand certain elements of worldview to better understand culture and avoid miscommunication and conflict. Well, I'm Marlene. And today I'd like to talk about one of those elements with you. It's called tolerance for ambiguity. I have it here. Tolerance for ambiguity. And you could have a low tolerance for it or a high tolerance for it.

First of all, what is ambiguity? Well, ambiguity is simply a word for uncertainty. Uncertainty about how to proceed, what is right, what is true, what is proper. It could be uncertainty about the future. OK. So that's ambiguity. And a tolerance for ambiguity refers to how comfortable you are as a person if we could have our personal tolerance for ambiguity. But in this case, a culture. How comfortable is a culture? Functioning in an ambiguous situation, how comfortable and confident are they? Now all cultures do tend to take a worldview position on the degree of specificity or detail they need to feel comfortable in a situation, a plan, or agreement.

Now certainly this is a broad assumption here. These positions are not absolute. They don't apply to everyone in the culture. But in general, there's a broad perhaps view here of tolerance for ambiguity. So let's start by looking at a low tolerance for ambiguity. What would that look like? Well, in a culture with a low tolerance, there would be a need to know the rules, the specific details, procedures. So a lot of rules and laws, perhaps regulations governing things.

And there would be a need to avoid risk. So low risk. We're not going to take any risks here. We have our rules. We have our laws. Things don't change. You may find that cultures like this tend to be cultures that have been maybe around a long time. They don't have diverse populations. They have strong traditions. There may be some uncertainty about the future or maybe a more fatalistic idea about the future and destiny. So that would be a low tolerance for ambiguity.

Well, now what about a high tolerance for ambiguity? Well, in a culture that has that high tolerance rather than rigid rules or regulations, general principles, or guidelines. OK. You couldn't function with the principles. You may have more of a diverse population. Diversity. and that would be diversity of opinion. So it wouldn't just be one way.

So we have diversity of opinion. And of course, there would be an embracing of risk or innovation. So this would be typical of maybe a culture that was younger, that did have people coming, immigrant populations bringing new ideas. And that might be typical of a culture that had a higher tolerance for ambiguity.

So how does this play out, this low tolerance for ambiguity as opposed to high? When cultures are interacting or perhaps business people from different cultures or even people coming together. What are some examples here of how there could be miscommunication or conflict? Well, it could be around a plan perhaps or a proposal or some sort of business decision.

So if perhaps someone from the United States were doing business in a culture where there was a need for more specific facts, detail, rules, the business person would have to allow time for that. And many times we want to rush things through and get things done and move ahead. Perhaps just give people the guidelines they need or the resources to do something. Give them that sense of autonomy to move ahead. Well, that might involve a bit too much ambiguity, a bit of uncertainty here.

So rather than just guidelines, more exact procedures, rules, and time to review those rules would be important to understand from the point of view of the person coming from this culture, the United States. And also to understand that perhaps doing something entirely new that would involve some risk. Changing from the old ways of doing things may not be easy to do immediately. That would take time. Once again, we're back to the idea here of time. So those are the kinds of things that it would be important to understand for the person coming from the culture where there's a high tolerance of ambiguity.

Now a person coming from a culture with the low tolerance of ambiguity would need to understand that the business person here wants to push ideas through quickly. That's what's considered comfortable and confident in the culture this person comes from. And the guidelines and the resources are the way they operate this sense of autonomy. So being able to be open and understanding of these differences between cultures can do a lot to guide a process of communicating and navigating your way through any kind of a business transaction.

Now what about the conflict resolution process? Well, in this process our mediation model here in the United States is built around a sense of equality and giving autonomy to the parties who are involved, allowing them to come up with their own guidelines and perhaps their own solutions. And if there is someone involved in the process who has a lower tolerance here for ambiguity, they may not be comfortable with that part of the process and may need to have an understanding here of more direct procedures or rules in terms of how to proceed. They also may need to answer the question of who has the power to decide what is? Are there issues of status here? In terms of how we come to an agreement.

And what are the rules and the procedures that we will follow? They need to be clearly outlined for people coming from some cultures who may be more comfortable not dealing in a situation where there's a lot of ambiguity. So once again cultures do take a worldview position on their tolerance for ambiguity. Doesn't apply to everyone. But it's very helpful to understand that it could be at play in any particular situation where you're dealing interculturally. I've enjoyed being part of this tutorial. And I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know

Uncertainty in a given situation about what is true, right, proper, etc.

Tolerance for Ambiguity

The degree to which an individual, influenced by cultural norms, feels confident functioning in an ambiguous situation.