Uncertainty Avoidance

The notable Dutch researcher Geert Hofstede, a pioneer in intercultural comparative research, is someone I owe gratitude to.  His research has helped me think about what it means to be Western, and also what it means to be Chinese, from a standpoint of behaviors and values. The data behind Hofstede’s surveys informs the framework I use in Capricorn Monkey.  

Hofstede calls one of his dimensions Uncertainty Avoidance. In other words, some people are more O.K. with uncertainty than others. But change itself is also an element of uncertainty that people wish to avoid. I look forward to exploring this dimension and the other five dimensions that are treated in the book, in a more casual way on this blog, drawing from pop culture, and so forth.

This calls for a fun movie example. In Luc Besson’s classic film Léon: The Professional, there is a memorable scene in which Danny Aiello’s character says to Léon: “Change ain’t good, you know Léon.” They are sitting in Tony’s Butchery, which is operated as a front for Tony’s criminal activities, and the two have just had an uncomfortable conversation about money. Léon is a contract killer for whom Tony is a sort of dual mentor and agent. Léon, to our cinematic delight, is the archetypal lovable bumpkin with a blood-splashed CV. In the scene, we learn that though Léon has been “whacking” people left and right, the payments for all that dangerous work have been made to Tony. And, reading the subplot, we learn that Tony’s assurances that no one can knock him over, like all the banks which get knocked over, starts to smell fishy. We can only assume from the wrought pregnant pauses that Léon’s money, stashed with Tony is a little less accessible than he thought. But going back to Tony’s comment, what about the talk of change? Tony is a criminal, mind you, and this is an extreme example of uncertainty avoidance; most criminals who remain uncaught are naturally very resistant to any change. But what does Tony really mean?

Well, the movie gives a few snapshots of the new reality that Tony is facing. The first is that new criminal syndicates, like Asians and Russians are encroaching on the old guard’s turf. Tony’s extreme Uncertainty Avoidance manifests itself in xenophobia. Also, we know that in most cop and robber films the bad guys only deal in cash. Tony’s continual ranting about the banking system reveals a lot about his character. He is not only the guy who stuffs wads of hundred dollar bills under his mattress, it is 1994 and he is the guy who is going to resist email. Sure, Tony is probably aware that he is foregoing opportunities by being so insistent, and then again, what is wrong with the old way of doing business, with a firm handshake, while looking into someone’s eyes? You can’t help but get the feeling that this whole new world of sophistication is unrolling itself before Tony’s eyes, but ol’ Tony just cannot help himself. In addition to being xenophobic, Tony is anti-innovation.

Again, this is an extreme example; no one wants to encourage criminals to be innovative. Tony is in the business of dealing death, a business littered with risk as the tables can turn in an instant; but he doesn’t like uncertainty. Tony’s mentality is a showcase of extreme Uncertainty Avoidance.

The generalization I will make is that Western and Chinese instincts broadly align around the need to be enterprising. That means pro-innovation, lots of reasonable balancing done between privacy protection and convenience, eagerness to meet new people; it means jumping onboard with AOL in the early 90’s- essentially everything that Danny’s Aiello’s character wasn’t. His character, Tony, portrayed a gangster ethos- something appears enterprising but is actually nothing but rent seeking. It is a key difference.

Uncertainty is one of those unavoidable components to enterprise, and rather than shy away from it, there is a shared bias to view change itself as opportunity. This is supported by Hofstede’s data, which shows the lowest variance between the Western values and Chinese values, in all of the dimensions tracked, is found in Uncertainty Avoidance. Wanting change doesn’t mean change for the sake of change, nor does it mean picketing for new politicians for the sake of new blood. It means enterprise as the base criterion. That doesn’t narrow to just mean business. Whether it is in education, science or medicine, Western and Chinese outlooks share optimism for the future, and confidence that people can make the world better. And then again, why wouldn’t you be O.K. with uncertainty if you believe it is in your power to live incrementally better tomorrow?