Friday, September 20, 2013

Uncertainty Avoidance

Okay.  The next dimension Geert Hofstede when talking about national culture is masculinity vs. femininity.  If you would like to read about it, please feel free to do so here and click on "masculinity versus femininity". I, however, have so very many strong issues about that dimension, from the naming of the dimension and the obvious gender-stereotyping such naming includes to the way that the dichotomy ignores the fact that such measures are often applied to varying aspects of the culture and not everything all together, something that we will, in fact, discuss in today's post.  Therefore, you are free to explore how the masculinity versus femininity dimension can inform your stories, but I am going to skip it.

Today, I want to talk about uncertainty avoidance, which is the extent to which a culture is comfortable with having things undefined.  To be honest, I find this dimension to be troublesome as well because, in my work with people from other cultures, I find that every culture has certain areas in which they like very clear definition, and these areas are often highlighted in the dominant language's grammar and usage, and other areas that they are not as concerned about, which tend to be more ignored in grammar and usage.  For instance, in English, we always want to know which one and how many.  We have many, many words and grammatical accommodations to convey this information, from adjectives that tell number to plural and singular forms of both nouns and verbs.  Our articles ("a", "an", and "the") as well as many of our demonstrative adjectives ("this", "that", "these", "those", etc.) all point to our desire to know which one.  On the other hand, most Asian languages don't use plural forms at all--because how many has limited relevance to them in many cases.  What does matter to many Asian cultures is cultural position, and nouns and verbs both have endings indicating the relative cultural positions of the speaker and the addressee.  Such information is largely ignored in English--it is irrelevant to many Western cultures much of the time.

So uncertainty avoidance is, in my opinion, not so much an absolute measure of uncertainty as a whole as it is a question of which types of uncertainty do groups of people avoid, how do they differ, and why.

And I find that these types of questions can really amp up the conflict in our stories because the search for certainty on different issues often reveals motivation--and usually cross purposes.

For example:
  • The horribly sexist assumption that a woman asking a man to give her details about a birth will be tremendously disappointed because he won't get any of the pertinent details, such as, the length of labor, medication during delivery, type of delivery, the gestational age of the baby, the size of the baby, and sometimes even the name and sex of the baby.  And while I admit that it's sexist to assume that most men won't get that information and that the information is important to most women, I have to admit that I've never met a man who has had that information when I asked for it--including fathers who were in the delivery room during the entire birthing process (and I have to ask myself, What were they doing in there?).
  • The attempt to get information about the school day when your child wants to do something else (and may even be asking about something else).
  • Negotiations between a client wanting a timeline and a contractor wanting a payscale
Not all of these situations necessarily cause conflicts, but they do betray conflicting interests which make our stories more interesting and also help us give our readers insight into our characters.  I hope you find some help in this way of looking at situations as you write.

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