Managing Uncertainty

Type A? If so, get ready to take some bulleted notes. Not type A? Feel free to skim these comments while checking Facebook and watching your favorite movie.

The reality: managing uncertainty is tough, but if you are extremely Type A, uncertainty is the kiss of death. So, does this mean Type A individuals have no business as expats? Absolutely not! Don’t sweat it, there is some really great news for Typer A-ers out there.

Where Type B personalities see adventure, they may see danger and chaos. Where B’s see opportunity to experiment, A’s may see lack of preparation leading to potential disaster. What might cause a Typer-A personality to become reclusive and homesick might generate energy and excitement in a Type-B personality. Funny how the same context and situation can lead two people to react mentally, physically, and emotionally in complete opposite ways. Well, funny unless you are the one breathing into a barf-bag to keep from hyperventilating.

The first time we leave home we experience uncertainty. It is when we shuffle our feet to extend our static borders that we begin to sense that things are not “normal” any longer, or that we are just not sure what to expect next. Maybe the first day of primary school or even college, your first big adult job, or moving from your hometown to a big city far away. We will react. But some of us just react in different ways.

Let me be very clear. Stepping into a host culture, no matter how much you have been taught about this new place, creates uncertainty. It bleeds uncertainty, sometimes to the point of real chaos, leading to disrupted expectations and confused stability-formation at best. Kind of like going into College Algebra because you want to be an Engineer. Better to know what you are getting into before committing a college career to the difficulties ahead. This is one of the reasons why university’s require a semester of supervised teaching before completing a teaching certificate. We need to know that we can handle the “boots on the ground”, day to day life of a teacher before launching full-steam ahead.

But even if we have invested heavily the time and resources to get ready for life abroad (i.e. learning the language, buying the right clothes, studying the cultural-religious worldview, etc.), we should take the important step of practicing the inevitable: uncertainty.

Practicing uncertainty may seem like an odd concept. But, from failed work-Visa attempts that force us to leave the country for a couple months at a time, to shopping at the grocery store in a different language, to keeping track of expenditures in varying currencies, there is just going to be uncertainty. So, wouldn’t it be wise to get ready for that too before you go? This may sound a bit odd, but you have to begin by putting yourself in (safe) situations that create a sense of uncertainty for you today. Just like you would practice language before entering a new country, you should focus attention on practicing uncertainty and then working through the uncertainty. In this way, like anything else, with increased exposure we find alleviated stress. Through lessened stress we are, in turn, able to think through and navigate uncertain situations with more ease and yes, with even more flexibility. Something Type A individuals don’t like to talk about.

Nonetheless, if we are going to successfully transition cross-culturally, we need to face the reality that uncertainty will abound and we need to do what it takes to prepare. In other words, we can be certain about uncertainty’s existence abroad. This means taking steps, such as putting yourself in situations where uncertainty rules the day and see how you react. Take note of how you react psychologically, emotionally, physically, etc. Then have a conversation with a professional counselor regarding this situation and your reactions. Begin storing away those valuable tools so that next time your reaction will be less severe. And then, over time, due to systematic desensitization, you will find yourself relatively relaxed in chaotic situations.

Try substitute teaching for the day without notes from the absent teacher, for example. Notice your reactions, and get to work revising these immediate responses so that when you are in the field abroad, and when chaotic situations create vast uncertainty, you can keep your head and keep moving ahead. Again, uncertainty is certain in life abroad. But you are smart and will prepare. I am certain of that.