Cultural Revelations – Part 2
This is the second part of my contemplation on cultural value orientations, and how they relate to me. This is where you can read the first part. After talking about identity and authority, we will look at two more value orientations. They are:
Risk – Uncertainty Avoidance
Low Uncertainty Avoidance: Emphasis on flexibility and adaptability
High Uncertainty Avoidance: Emphasis on planning and predictability
Achievement – Cooperative – Competitive
Cooperative: Emphasis on collaboration, nurturing, and family
Competitive: Emphasis on competition, assertiveness, and achievement
What is Uncertainty Avoidance? It’s the degree to which most people within a certain culture tolerate risk and feel threatened by uncertain ambiguous circumstances.
When I was growing up, I lived in a very high uncertainty avoidance culture. We knew exactly what was going to happen that day, next month, even in the coming years. We (most people) felt comfortable with this. There were government created long term plans (3-year long and 5-year long ones, see posters), but as individuals and families we could also rely on planning for the future. Now, dear reader, I don’t want you to think that I am idealizing the years of socialist Hungary. But at that point we didn’t know what else existed, and it was nice to know that our parents had a job at the beginning of the month, and they were going to have it at the end of it as well.
I also knew that by studying well I had a good chance to get accepted to a good high school and later to a university. In fact, because I came from a working class family, getting into the university was pretty simple. Just for fun, here is an off-topic note about my university attendance: I did not have to pay tuition at all, and since I had good grades, I even received money from the government during those 5 years. They called it “meat money”.
Putting aside how well or badly the communist system worked, I certainly grew up into a person who relies heavily on planning. I do not like ‘out of the blue’ events; I like to know that I am in control of the happenings. I need to know what is going to happen in the next months, and even in the coming years.
How about the culture I live in currently? The US is a pretty low uncertainty avoidance culture. Situations are dealt with as they come along, and there is less planning about the future. Another characteristic of this kind of culture is to use open ended instructions, and sometimes loose deadlines. For someone who is used to following rules, instructions and serious deadlines, this has always felt awkward. There might be individuals from collectivistic cultures who happily jump into this new kind of culture, but it wasn’t the case for me. Unfortunately, there was something that did force me to live more like this.
Between the ages of 24 and 36 I was fighting infertility. Those 11 years were definitely uncertain; I never knew what results the treatments were going bring. Also, during those years I was afraid to make long time plans, which was the opposite of my practices. The idea that I could be expecting a child in the next month, half a year or year stopped me from creating any long term plans. Luckily, this time is over, and I have been a happy mother for almost 11 years.
I still plan everything out. A little bit too much, according to many. I always imagine how certain situation might go, and I try to be ready for the various scenarios. A simple, every day example: I will not completely rely on a GPS (like my husband does) without first looking at the whole route it wants to send me on.
How about today’s Hungary? I don’t live there; I only visit it every summer. But from what I see and hear I can say, that things have changed dramatically. It is becoming more of a low uncertainty culture, but among its citizens there are many who lived during the communism, during the “certainty times”. Nowadays things can change – and they do change – from day to day. Unfortunately, many of these changes just simply do not make any sense.
I’d like to mention one more thing here. I, alongside with people from many other ethnic groups, hesitate to speak in front of a large group of people. We were raised to only speak when we were directly asked to do that, and our answer had to be the right answer. If it wasn’t, often we were made fun of. When I am sitting at a PTA meeting at my daughter’s school, I sometimes have something to ask about or add to the current conversation, but I cannot make myself raise my hand or stand up and talk in front of all the parents. It could be helpful to have a box for written comments and questions with or without names.
Let’s look at the Achievement value now. There are two ends of the spectrum: the cooperative and the competitive cultures. I came to one of the most competitive cultures from a highly cooperative country. Where I lived, success came from groups working together. When you worked alone, you worked against the norm. Relationships played a very important role; they were the glue to get things done.
On the other hand, in the US (among other countries) the emphasis is on personal achievement. Basically, the fittest moves on. Cooperation will happen, but only when both parties have something that the other one needs. Then they will work “together” to get what they want from the other one.
Let’s look at today’s Hungary for a second. Guess what! There isn’t much left from the collectivistic culture there, except for one thing: you still have to have certain relationships; you need to know people in order to get things done. Other than this it has become a very individualistic country. Not as high on the scale as the US or Japan, but I certainly see it happening during my summer visits. If you look at Hungary’s nomadic history, the need to be the fittest to survive, it is not surprising, that this feels more natural for my people than the forced communist collectivism. But I spent my whole childhood in that collectivistic culture, and I believe that this is the area that prevents me from being more successful in my current country. I do not process the individualistic traits that you need to get ahead here. I like helping others and volunteer my time and talent for greater goods. I cannot get in the groove of self-promotion and self-marketing. I have a very hard time becoming the pushy person I need to become successful – in the Western sense. Just the idea of this makes me feel ashamed and embarrassed.
Where do you see yourself personally, independent from the country and culture you live in? Are you more of a risk taker, or you like to stay on the safe side? Do you work better cooperatively or competitively?