Pessimistic about Optimism

One of the more useful, in my experience, ways of understanding cultural differences, especially in Europe, is ‘uncertainty avoidance’. In short, cultures (meaning majority preferences within a society) tend to differ in how they deal with the inherent uncertainty of existence. No one knows what will happen tomorrow and over time and through history cultures broadly tend to fall into two camps.

Tomorrow is another day… and it’ll be great!

Tomorrow is another day… it surely will bring disaster….

In Europe, in general terms, the more north and west you get the more likely countries are liable to fall in the first camp. The further south and east the more likely they are to fall into the second. Lots of other things fall out and correlate from this basic approach to the future, from usage rates of caffeine and alcohol, attitudes toward children and teenagers, attitudes toward rules and even how fast people drive.

Poland, where I live, is firmly in the second group (high uncertainty avoidance. Here, no one thinks in terms of glasses being half full, here, optimism is more about “Wow, that glass is only half empty! Yahoo!”

The US, the land of my birth is moderately low uncertainty avoidance and the traditional attitude is more like why is it only half full let’s pour more into that glass till it’s overflowing!

What’s interesting is not only how cultures deal with uncertainty but how they deal with real catastrophe. Pessimists as they say are sometimes pleasantly surprised while optimists are almost always disappointed. When disaster really strikes it’s the pessimistic cultures that rebound more quickly.

This can be seen clearly in US vs Polish responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. In early March, when things were uncertain, Polish people were on edge and the lockdown was welcomes as a necessary inconvenience. But by Easter people were getting antsy… nothing that terrible was really happening. The numbers of infections and fatalities have never been that high. I don’t know if there was a single day with more than 500 new cases (though only at risk groups were being tested) and hardly a day with 40 fatalities. It’s plateaued at around 300 new cases a day and 30 fatalities (I’m rounding up in both cases) and Polish people are done with Coronavirus and the lockdown.

Government measures to reopen the economy and public life are less about real health concerns and more about trying to look like they’re nominally in charge. They opening things up as slowly as they think they can get away with because they don’t want to create a situation where it becomes obvious that no one cares what the government says.

Very different from the optimistic US where places with even lower rates of infection and fatalities are on forever lockdown and people are narcing (narcking?) on their neighbors like East Germans reporting to the Stasi.

It’s not that people in Poland are unaware of the risk, in high uncertainty avoidance cultures people can deal with risk. They understand the level of risk and the probability of a bad outcome and are okay with it. They’ll wear masks in public (or pretend to) and that’s about it. And cases of people reporting others for violations have been all but non-existent.

I’m glad I’m where I am.

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2 Responses to Pessimistic about Optimism

  1. Pingback: Winky Links | xykademiqz

  2. Caitlyn says:

    Interesting topic. I am American but I like to be positive not optimistic if that makes sense. I have learned that expectations are the best way to set yourself up for disappointment and that you should always hope (stay positive) for the best but plan for the worst so you’re prepared.

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