Cross-cultural awareness

Where Can We Find Hope in Uncertainty Times? Cultural and Generational Perspective

Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response
While making our wishes on New Years’ Eve we had no idea how fiercely would 2020 throw us out from the comfort zone. We were prepared and up to a certain point desensitized to local disasters. Especially when they happened in places that we perceived as remote. But this scale of health, economic, and emotional Force Majeure event? It was something new for most of us. Where can we find hope in uncertainty times?

Privilege and life circumstances

For some of us, it was working from home or having their children around 24/7. Others lost their jobs or were forced to stay in abusive situations for weeks. The lockdown exposed all our week spots and privileges and it was new and painful. But even those whose only worry was to try new recipes could still feel the pressure of forced confinement and uncertainty.

Others finally felt strangely calm and at ease. They were anxious before, fearing the worst outcome and it was finally happening. No need to pretend everything is fine anymore. Their emotional unsettlement aligned with outside events. They were in control.

“In some countries, uncertainty, risk, and ambiguity cause less anxiety than in others”.

Personal resilience and life circumstances affect how we are experiencing these uncertain times, but so does our culture.

uncertain future

Uncertainty Avoidance in Culture

In the 60s and the 70s a Dutch cross-cultural specialist, Geert Hofstede, examined how our values were influenced by our culture. In his research, he analyzed 100K individuals from 40 countries and developed a model of five key categories. One of them is Uncertainty Avoidance.

It turns out that, in some countries, uncertainty, risk, and ambiguity cause less anxiety than in others.

Here are some differences between high and low uncertainty avoidance cultures:


High uncertainty avoidance

  • Gender roles are mostly traditional
  • Security and stability are valued
  • Many formal and informal rules
  • Hectic life is undesirable and stressful
  • Showing emotions is a way to blow off steam

Low uncertainty avoidance

  • Openness to innovation and change
  • Readiness to take risks
  • Flexible to different perspectives
  • Preference for informality
  • Looking cool and calm is perceived as a value

uncertainty avoidance

Italy, United Kingdom, and Sweden in Corona times – case study

As you can see from this chart, Italy has a high uncertainty avoidance index – 75. The United Kingdom is lower with 35 and Sweden is among the countries with the lowest uncertainty avoidance index – 29.

This is the reason why in Italy, as in many other uncertainty-avoidant countries, the idea of postponing the lockdown or not doing it at all, was unthinkable. With a high rate of the elderly population, that happens also to be among the wealthiest, the economical crisis still mattered less. While staying home, people would be safe. In the first weeks, Italians massively approved the lockdown. Italian media opposed their safety strategy to the one Britain and Sweden were performing.

“In Italy the idea of postponing the lockdown or not doing it at all was unthinkable”

Britain, on the other hand, tried to avoid lockdown but was forced to do one by the public opinion, mostly after China and Italy’s examples.

Sweden, the lowest on this index, became one of the few European countries that didn’t go into lockdown. Citizens were instructed about the physical distancing, businesses stayed open, and apparently, it went better than some other countries that went into strict lockdowns.

Does it mean that cultures with lower uncertainty avoidance index make better decisions? Nope, it’s not always the case.

unsure uncertain

Uncertainty leads to anxiety and influences our life quality

While low uncertainty avoidance index can help countries to easily embrace innovations, have more businesses, and less bureaucracy, in order to be willing to risk and jump into the void, we need to be sure that we are carrying a good parachute.

If you were raised in a culture that values stability, like Italy, where “posto fisso” – a stable workplace – or work-life balance are among the most desired assets, you can’t just turn it off. You will need more stability in your life and there is nothing wrong with it. Cultural awareness helps you understand why you think the way you do and avoid judging those who think differently.

“Taking risks from the perspective of fear is not the same as doing so from a place of creativeness and innovation”

Both high and low uncertainty avoidance strategies are perfectly normal and have their pros and cons. Italy’s traditions, monuments, and fascinating social interaction rules couldn’t survive with a low uncertainty avoidance always seeking innovation.

What unites them both is the urgency to meet individuals’ basic needs, at least the physiological and safety ones. Coronavirus crisis exposed how much do we need access to healthcare, unemployment benefits, and affordable housing. Taking risks from the perspective of fear is not the same as doing so from a place of creativeness and innovation.

Many people in these past few months took online courses, learned new skills, and were creative the whole time. Many more had trouble focusing and only managed to remain afloat in a river of uncertainty. Unlike the first category, they didn’t brag about it on social media.

Bauman and his Age of Uncertainty

In his book “Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty” Bauman describes the stress we are facing from being constantly flexible and adaptable with no certain frameworks coming from institutions or politicians. We sacrificed long-term life plans, commitments, and frames of reference for individual freedom.

For millennials, uncertainty is endemic and pervasive. Other generations might have discovered uncertainty for the first time during the Coronavirus pandemic. For us, not being able to plan ahead and feeling out of control because too many variables depend on other people, has become part of our life long ago.

hope uncertainty

Is there hope in uncertainty times?

What can help us as individuals handle uncertainty better and give us hope? Surely knowing that our basic needs will be met, that we will still have an income in times of crisis and, of course, community. 

Knowing that we are culturally wired for stability or more willing to taking risks can help too. We carry our family and community stories about war, sacrifice, and survival.

Thousands of families lost all their savings overnight in Eastern Europe after the URSS dismantled, mine amongst them. When I was a teenager, I asked my Mom how did people keep their mental sanity in those hard times? How do you keep going knowing that you have children to raise and homes to maintain? She smiled: “One day at a time. Also, we had our community. When helped each other with information, jobs, and kindness”. 

“During these times we need physical distance and social proximity”

As a true millennial, I always felt part of a global community more than of a local one. I call friends people I have only seen a couple of times because we shared a lot online, I say “I spoke to” when what I actually mean is “I had an online chat with”. I didn’t always make a conscious effort to cultivate my local community because my friends in other European cities always felt near at hand. Closed borders since the beginning of the lockdown did feel weird, claustrophobic, even intimidating.

community hope uncertainty

Finding strength and hope in our local community

Maybe finding hope in this strange and uncertain situation means being more attentive to people we have nearby. In big cities, we share public space with a lot of people. We live the same experiences but we rarely interact with strangers. As some of my Facebook friends accurately pointed out, during these times we need physical distance and social proximity.

When traveling becomes complicated and our freedoms are limited, we can turn to our local community, let into our private space more of the people who we share our public space with. It might feel scary because we are no longer protected by screens, firewalls, and the possibility to flee when we feel like it, but maybe we can build something meaningful to thrive together. It is worth giving a try.

Where do you find hope in uncertainty times? Comment below or join Multicultural You Facebook group.

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