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How to manage uncertainty and keep your intercultural zest

We are in the middle of a mind-blowing crisis.

Many of you will be working from home, which may at times feel like the eye of the storm.

Many of you will be working from home, in frequent online exchange with international partners to manage the implications of the pandemic in your work area. We hope that you, your family and friends are all well.

VUCA World

The current crisis painfully reminds us that our world is a VUCA world: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. First used in 1987, VUCA back then referred to the post-Cold War era. The challenges have changed, but our world is and will continue to be a VUCA world: highly interconnected, changing daily and being hardly predictable. We need unique competences to deal with the VUCA world. And while international travel is hardly possible, and national borders are closed, we need to understand more than ever before our different cultural perspectives and hone our skills in cross-cultural communication and co-operation.

When the going gets tough: Intercultural competences under pressure

Intercultural competences easily fall behind when under pressure. In stressful circumstances we tend to take our own (cultural) perspectives for granted and forget the other persons’ views. We may fall back on our own preferred style of communicating – being too direct, or too vague – and forget the repertoire of styles we could use to meet the needs of the other. We run the risk of US versus THEM thinking, jumping to conclusions about others and their intentions. Cartoons on how different countries have used different approaches to combat corona are illustrative. Have a look at this animation by Mary Beth Sheridan in the Washington Post. We captured some of the links that the animation refers to in the Symbaloo COVID-19 and Culture Here you also find more videoclips and blogs that show different cultural aspects and strategies.

Symbaloo Covid-19 and Culture

Thinking, fast and slow[1]

Mental shortcuts under pressure are normal, rooted in the functioning of our mind. When under stress, our social autopilot, our fast cognitive processes take over. Fast thinking works like a reflex, it’s automatic and effortless. Slow thinking, in contrast, allows us to reflect, adjust, cover new ground. But slow thinking needs attention and effort, resources which are limited. When we are under pressure, or when our resources are used up (for example, when a crisis persists), we fall back on our automatic thought and behaviour patterns.

Be aware of your social autopilot

The speed and automaticity of fast thinking mean that we easily jump to conclusions. This is useful in familiar situations – our conclusions are likely to be correct. But it’s less useful in intercultural situations, where fast thinking means we are likely to jump to the wrong conclusions. In these settings, we desperately need our reflective mind. But do we sense that our energy is used up? If not, we might still think we are using our reflective mind when in fact, our social autopilot is already pushing all our buttons. Self-awareness is therefore key for navigating effectively in uncertain situations.

Stay curious even when under pressure

Of the four intercultural competences measured by the Intercultural Readiness Check, Managing Uncertainty helps us most when under stress and pressure. It captures differences in how we respond, and how we manage ourselves when under pressure, or when suddenly confronted with complicated choices. We are all curious, yet we differ in what bores us, and what makes us panic. Somewhere in between boredom and panic, we are optimally engaged and open to learning. At this optimal level, we are curious to learn more about the world around us: We explore, we digest, we integrate the new information and we act upon it. If we have learned to manage ourselves under uncertainty, we can tolerate quite some pressure and still stay curious.

Be open to cultural complexity

Managing Uncertainty requires us to take a leap of faith into the unknown. Its first aspect, which we call ‘Openness to Cultural Complexity, reflects how much we are willing to deal with the added complexity of a more diverse environment, of a rapidly changing and unpredictable context. The key to openness to the complexity of cultural diversity is to stay curious about why other people behave differently from what we expected. How can we stay curious both about people who easily follow the new corona legislation and those who invent their own rules for dealing with the virus? How can we stay interested both in people demanding mouth caps for everyone, and in those who keep going on as before with social contacts?

Explore new approaches

‘Exploring New Approaches’ is the second element of Managing Uncertainty: realizing that current approaches don’t work anymore and trying out new ones. For this to work in a highly complex situation, we need everyone’s voice and perspective: welcoming diversity as a natural and ever-present source of ideas for learning how we could do things differently. People with a lesser need for certainty might get a kick out of VUCA situations exactly because they don’t come with a script. People who need certainty, in contrast, may feel constantly out of balance and struggle to deal find it hard to accept the current challenges because they are constantly out of balance. Know yourself and others well in this sense and use the diversity to find new ideas and solutions for the current demanding tasks at hand.

Don’t rush, don’t freeze

What helps you to deal with this uncertainty, and the intercultural demands of your role? Explore how you manage uncertainty and realize it’s a game-changing competence! Don’t rush, don’t freeze. Be kind to yourself and stay curious about other perspectives. They might hold the key to a solution you didn’t think of at first. And sing a song now and then!

Ursula Brinkmann, Yvonne van der Pol and Oscar van Weerdenburg

[1] Daniel Kahneman ‘Thinking, fast and slow’(2011)

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Masterclass Brain, Mind & Culture

On October 18, 2024 the next Masterclass Brain, Mind and Culture of Japan Intercultural Institute starts. This Masterclass is a blended learning course (webinars-podcasts-online learning) that introduces the latest insights of culture, brain and mind sciences to those living and working interculturally. You will gain a deeper understanding of the psychology of intercultural experiences, including: culture and cognition, biases, and deep culture learning and transformation. You will learn to be a more insightful interculturalist and learn how to encourage intercultural learning in others. Joseph Shaules and Yvonne van der Pol are your facilitators.

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