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Comparing Communication in Cultures with High & Low Tolerance for Ambiguity

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  • 0:00 Ambiguity Tolerance
  • 1:05 High…
  • 3:18 Low Ambiguity-Tolerant…
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

If you're reading this because not knowing what this lesson is about makes you nervous, you have different ambiguity tolerance than someone who is not worried. Explore the links between culture, communication, and uncertainty, then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Ambiguity Tolerance

In this lesson, I am going to explain something. Also, you'll take a quiz on that topic. However, I'm not telling you what that something is. You'll find out eventually, but not right now. Now, how does that make you feel? Are you nervous? Maybe a little? Or not at all?

The way we handle uncertainty is known as ambiguity tolerance. This idea was first applied to individuals, but social scientists soon realized that the theory is applicable for entire cultures as well. Some cultures are very low key, not often worrying about what lies ahead. On the other hand, some cultures are all about planning; they like to have as little uncertainty in their lives as possible. Regardless of which direction a culture leans, the ways we deal with uncertainty can dramatically impact our communication, and of that, you can be certain.

High Ambiguity-Tolerant Cultures

Everyone handles uncertainty differently, but this very often comes back to our cultural values. A high ambiguity-tolerant culture is not concerned by uncertainty. People from this culture tend to feel comfortable in situations in which they don't always know what is happening, and they do not avoid these situations.

Let's take a look at Johnny here. Johnny is from a high ambiguity-tolerant culture. He sees a group of people from another culture, and although he does not know a lot about their language or customs, he knows enough and tries to communicate. Since Johnny is not worried by uncertainty, he's got no problem inserting himself into the conversation, and while his foreign language may not be great, he's not afraid to try. For Johnny, communication is not hampered by uncertainty, and he doesn't care if he occasionally makes mistakes.

In the real world, notable cultures that are pretty high on ambiguity tolerance include the nations of the Caribbean and Southern Europe. In these regions, communication, both with friends and strangers, tends to be informal, time schedules are not always important, and uncertainty is a common feature of daily life.

Let me ask - have you ever tried following an Italian train schedule? For those of us who aren't from the Caribbean or Southern Europe, it's a pretty stressful experience. If the train shows up at all, it could be 5 minutes early or 15 minutes late. Cultures with high tolerance for ambiguity rarely plan far in advance, and generally understand that plans are subject to change. In terms of communication, people from these cultures are often comfortable striking up conversations with anyone, regardless of how well they know them, but if you're going into a conversation with a specific goal, don't hold your breath. These conversations can, and often will, meander through dozens of personal topics before arriving at the actual point.

Low Ambiguity-Tolerant Cultures

How we interact with people is generally a result of our upbringing, social expectations, and the millions of interactions we observe throughout our lives. So, it's something we learn as part of our culture. Now, while some cultures have no problem dealing with uncertainty, others do. A low ambiguity-tolerant culture is concerned or made uncomfortable by uncertainty. People from these cultures tend to become anxious when they are in unfamiliar situations or don't have at least rough plans.

This is Jenny. Jenny is from a low ambiguity-tolerant culture. While Johnny has no problem joining an unfamiliar culture, Jenny is going to avoid as much uncertainty as possible. Does this mean that she's never going to head across the screen? No, but she is going to research the culture, language, and customs of other areas, and she's going to practice so that by the time she gets there, she knows exactly what to expect.

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