I remember hearing the phrase “ambiguity tolerance” in training down in Melbourne. Then, on the first day of language class here in Cambodia, our teacher shared that good language learners are those who have ambiguity tolerance (or who work on having good ambiguity tolerance). That is, there’s much that we don’t know. But if we stop to try to understand every single detail before acting–or speaking, in the case of language learning–then we won’t get very far without being constantly frustrated.
I think what this looks like in a new culture is that we’re acting or speaking without knowing the full extent of what we are doing or saying. For example, in just using our favourite and usual tuktuk driver are we being loyal to him or showing an unhealthy favouritism in a collective culture? We’re just never really sure what our actions are saying or the effect they are having on others.
Now, this is actually how we ALL live, all the time, whether overseas or not. But this fact is highlighted more in a place where you know very little about the culture. Sometimes I do well at tolerating ambiguity. At these times, ambiguity tolerance enables me to relax, given I’m not going to have all the info I need before making decisions. At other times, the ambiguity is harder to deal with. Here’s one example:
My tuktuk driver said something to me and I had no idea what he said. He’d been driving us most places, most days for close to a month. We were seeing each other a lot; some days I would be in the tuktuk for 3 hours. I had started speaking in very poor beginner Khmer to him. He often said things to me that I didn’t understand, but I usually nod to be polite (a fairly usual pattern for us here in Cambodia). This particular day was a Friday and I didn’t think too much of it.
Anyway, the following Monday, one of his tuktuk driver friends showed up instead of him. I thought, ‘he must have just wanted a day off or had something to do’. A few days went by and the friend kept coming, not our usual tuktuk driver. I started to wonder whether he’d told me something important on that Friday. Was he displeased with us? Were we paying him enough? Was he going to come back? Did we have conflict I was unaware of? I wasn’t being tolerant to this ambiguity, and it was affecting my tolerance in other areas of life here.
I didn’t realise how much the ambiguity was affecting me until the 4th day when the tuktuk driver was late coming to pick us up. I started to hope. My regular tuktuk driver was often late, but his friend was always early. When I heard the tuktuk driver come down the street late, I was hoping it would be him (one of those times when you’re happy someone is late). And it was. My friend was back! I was so happy. I was happy because he was back. But I was also happy because the ambiguity of that situation was resolved. Unfortunately I couldn’t really tell him why I was happy.
This is just a small example of ambiguity tolerance. But this is one of the main ongoing lessons of living here so far. To survive in a new place, I’ll need to grow my ambiguity tolerance.