Falling in Love with uncertainty avoidance

When I started to work in a company that recognized the importance of cross-cultural trainings (unfortunately, not every company does!), one part of my job was to prepare cross-cultural inhouse trainings for expats coming to work in the German firm. Having been fascinated with cross-cultural topics for quite a while, I had already done plenty of studying of relevant literature (I had also taken part in a cross-cultural training and had once more realized how German I was). One of the first intercultural specialists whose books I read was Geert Hofstede and there I stumbled upon the term “uncertainty avoidance”.

Now, those of you who are familiar with cross-cultural topics are also familiar with uncertainty avoidance. For those who don’t know the term yet: it’s how a culture deals with uncertainty, whether it tries to avoid it or embraces it, whether there is a need for rules and regulations. You will find plenty of good definitions everywhere on the internet.

It immediately became my very favourite cultural dimension. According to Hofstede, Germany has a somewhat high uncertainty avoidance (with a value of 65, the UK in comparison has 35, Denmark 23 and the US has 46. Greece leads with a value of 112). Well, I think if my uncertainty avoidance would be measured, it would be around 130.

My father probably has a negative number as his uncertainty avoidance value, so you can imagine the fun we have when discussing something. One discussion I remember most vividly occured when I was nineteen and about to move out to attend Law School. I was planning to go to Jena, and as it was just a few years after the reunification of West and East Germany, accommodation was difficult to find in Jena. Do I even need to mention that this worried me severely? We had put an ad into a Jena newspaper and so far responses weren’t promising. So, my father and I had a dialogue that went something like this.

Me: “What shall we do if we don’t get a good response on the ad?”
Father: “We will get a good response.”
M: “But what if not? I already talked to the university and they have nothing and apart…”
F: “Don’t worry. You’ll find a place.”
M: “But everybody says it’s hard to find something, so maybe we should think about…”
F: “It’ll be fine.”
M: “But what if…”
F: “It will be fine.”

Well, guess what. It was fine. We only got one useful response, but I was very happy in that apartment. Every since then, my father and I had several more “What if…” – “It will be fine!” dialogues. And so far it has alwas been fine. But of course that doesn’t mitigate my uncertainty avoidance. Because one never knows…

My good friend Susanne from Leipzig was highly amused when I told her about how detailed I always plan my vacations. I’d never drive anywhere without having booked accommodation, taking maps and plenty of information. I felt quite vindicated in my approach when she told me that she had once gone to Paris without booking accommodation and had spent the first day of her vacation trying to find a hotel, eventually ending up in a hotel that would never have been her first choice (or even near her first choice). Still, she didn’t consider it a setback and I assume that’s one crucial point of uncertainty avoidance. With low uncertainty avoidance, things going differently than planned are not necessarily a bad development. With high uncertainty avoidance a change of plans is not a good thing.

Anyway, I’m glad I’m from a country with comparatively high uncertainty avoidance. It’s something I can completely relate to. And “It’s not my fault, we Germans have a high uncertainty avoidance” does sound better than “I’m a really compulsive planner.” 😉


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