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Keys to Success in Cross-Cultural Work: Ambiguity


In this, the last post in the multi-part Keys to Success in Cross-Cultural Work series, we tackle perhaps the most difficult thing we encounter when working cross-culturally: ambiguity.  In a best-case scenario, most of us prefer clarity over ambiguity.  The reality is that often we find ourselves in a less than ideal situation and must face some level of ambiguity.  This can be especially true in cross-cultural situations where things such as language, skill, confidence, and social norms can impact the level of comfort and clarity we might normally achieve within our own culture.

Dealing with ambiguity goes beyond being flexible and/or adapting to change.  In most ambiguous situations, we don’t know how, when, why, or what might be going on.  We may feel frustrated and yet not know how to calm any presence of anxiety.  Therefore, acknowledging a situation as ambiguous and intentionally acting to relieve it can help us navigate cross-cultural barriers we are facing.

Here are four things we can do to help deal with ambiguity and move closer to success in cross-cultural situations.

1) Recognize ambiguity and our response to it.

When we are faced with a situation we consider ambiguous and are feeling tension because of it, we may not initially understand what we are feeling or why we are feeling that way.  We may attribute the tension to disagreement, wrong-doing, or dishonesty.  In reality, however, the situation is ambiguous, undefined, vague, or confusing.  We feel tension because of a lack of clarity or unmet expectations.  It may be natural for us at that point to believe the culture event/happening is wrong.  We may unintentionally assign our own culture’s moral code to the host culture.  However, we must avoid doing that.  Once we mitigate the value judgment, we can see clearly that we have something to learn from the culture and its people.  Our response to the ambiguous situation then can be positive, open, ready to learn, and even affectionate as we become more deeply involved in the cultural customs that may soon become adopted as our own.

2) Avoid the temptation to assume things or to assign blame.

It is easy to assume the ambiguity is a result of a lack of planning by someone or is poor communication because someone is less intelligent than we are, or that they don’t care as much as we do.  Let’s be careful not to fall in to this blame-game, value-judgment trap.  Keeping an open mind will prevent us from vilifying a person or culture, as well as help us avoid the pitfall of being perceived as arrogant in our belief that our own culture is superior because you plan or communicate with the type of clarity you prefer.  Remember that we are all created in God’s image, making us all equal in that way, despite the vast differences that make our cultures unique and distinct.  Neither of us is better than another.

3) Ask questions to gain desired clarity.

Ambiguity-related tension can often be relieved by finding answers or explanations for the seemingly unclear situations in which we find ourselves.  Since there is always a wealth of assumed cultural knowledge, asking questions can foster understanding and bring to light the legitimate reasons for the way things are being done.  One of the keys to success here is to avoid rhetorical or sarcastic questions or comments in the process.  Those most often come from a place of having already decided we know what is best.  Instead, we must ask questions that show we have a deep desire for understanding.  In addition, asking cultural questions before we face ambiguity can go a long way in preventing tension, while at the same time building relationships that will deepen with time and will bridge the cultural knowledge gap as well.

4) Look for the learning opportunity.

Every time we are stretched outside our comfort zones, there is a chance to learn something, whether about ourselves or about others and their cultures.  If we commit to having a learning mentality, we can realize that perhaps we are more capable than we know when it comes to learning a new skill.  Some of the deepest cultural lessons can be learned when processing through an ambiguous situation.

For instance, we may feel there is a lack of clarity surrounding some important event and all its logistical details.  The host culture, however, does not place the same worth on the logistics, but rather emphasizes the togetherness of the event itself, valuing relationship over time. Or, perhaps our own home culture values consistency and logical systems.  The host, though, may value variety and freedom of thought and speech.  We can learn a lot about these relatively foreign concepts by enduring the tension and seeking to develop both rapport with and an appreciation for those with whom we are interacting.  From ambiguity, through learning, we can move to a place of greater understanding and more significant connection which helps not only in the present day, but also as we move more confidently into the future in the cross-cultural setting.

One of the great things about interacting with people from other cultures is that our own view of the world around us is expanded.  Often we can find that there are fascinating differences, and if we are honest, perhaps better ways of handling things than what we have always known.  So let’s give it a try, take a risk; let’s lean in to the ambiguity and see what we learn and how we can grow.

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