The agony of ambiguity


One of the major intercultural competences is a tolerance for ambiguity.

This means being open to different interpretations of what you observe and experience.

Without awareness, we are likely to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable when people behave in unexpected ways. We are also more likely to attribute negative motivations such as

They are doing this because they don’t like me.

They are not showing me appropriate respect.

They are are being secretive about what I should be doing now.

Why is this person flirting with me?

When we cannot tolerate ambiguity, the situation is more likely to escalate into conflict.

How to avoid

In the diverse classroom, there is a clear need for the teacher or trainer to be tolerant of ambiguity and to

  • ask about and clarify when behaviours are unexpected.
  • even better is to anticipate misunderstandings and to make as much clear from the beginning as possible.
  • there is also a clear case for giving students some awareness tools in order to make them feel more comfortable in the classroom.

Learning will not take place efficiently in a person whose mental energies are preoccupied by constantly wondering what is going on and what to do next.

There may even be a case for adaptation from the teacher’s side to become a little closer to their students’ way of thinking. One example of this is by approaching conflicts as an issue of relationship maintenance and repair rather than the administration of an unwavering rule set.

The video below illustrates the potential benefits of teachers being open to other ways of doing things.

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