How to Manage Intercultural Conflicts

People bring with them different sets of culturally constructed perspectives toward appropriate behavior. With this in mind, it is no surprise that conflict and disputes exist when communicating across cultures. Further, it should be no surprise that within the context of conflict, people have different sets of perceptions about appropriate ways to handle that conflict. This article begins with an exploration of background components that influence intercultural conflict escalation. We then turn to an examination of key conflict process factors, such as conflict styles across cultures and considerations of face. We then offer some insights to managing intercultural conflict flexibly.

The definition of conflict is an expressed struggle between interdependent parties with incompatible goals or unmet emotional needs. In an intercultural context, conflict is the explicit or implicit emotional struggle or frustrations between people from different cultures over perceived incompatible goals, norms, values, face concerns, scarce resources, and/or communication outcomes. How we manage conflict matters much more than whether or not we engage in it in the first place. It is this management of conflict that shapes the outcome. Engaging in conflict with an inflexible approach generally leads into a polarized situation.


Our attitudes, expectations and behaviors are generally influenced by and result from our cultural value patterns, such as individualistic or collectivistic. These different patterns of values can be the first thing that engenders intercultural frustration. For example, someone from a collectivistic culture will likely approach a situation with the group's goals in mind, while someone from an individualistic culture will likely approach that same situation with self-serving goals in mind. These two individuals are coming from very different mindsets, and it is easy to see how frustration and conflict can emerge when they clash.
The global workplace situation is the second set of background elements that contributes to intercultural conflict, as it relates to the expectations and structure of power distance.
These two dimensions combine to yield four distinct approaches. Individualism plus large power distance yields a status-achievement conflict approach. The values here are personal freedom and earned inequality. Employees may feel free to voice their concerns, but simultaneously don't anticipate much change from their superiors. The US falls into this category.
Individualism combined with small power distance brings about an impartial conflict approach. Expectations are personal freedom and equal treatment. Managers are expected to deal with employee concerns fairly and objectively. This approach is common in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway.
Collectivism and large power distance combine to yield a benevolent conflict approach. Values at play here are obligation to others and asymmetrical treatment within interactions. Managers view themselves as part of a larger system, with responsibilities to other members of that system. Most Latin and South American cultures as well as most Asian, Arab, and African nations hold to this approach.
Collectivism and small power distance together bring a communal conflict approach. This is the least common, and includes values of authentic interdependent connection to others and genuine equality manifest in genuinely respectful communications at all levels. Mindful listening and collaborative dialog are paramount to this perspective, currently found only in Costa Rica.

Conflict Processes

Face is a person's public self-image. Facework is the strategies we use to defend and protect our self-image and the self-images of others. For example, when confronted with a threat to our sense of public self-image, we will likely either leave the situation or engage in face-saving strategies. In this article, we will discuss three approaches to examining conflict styles.

In general, a conflict communication style is a pattern of verbal and nonverbal messages routinely sent in a variety of conflict situations. There are three approaches to studying this: the dispositional approach, the situational approach, and the systems approach.

In a dispositional approach, individualized conflict behaviors are emphasized. Here, people learn conflict behaviors through their socialization process in conjunction with an individual's personality traits. For example, extroverts may tend to use a dominant conflict style while introverts will more likely use a submissive or avoiding style. Such traits can be extended to the cultural level, as members of some cultures would systematically show certain characteristics.
In a situational approach the topic of the conflict is emphasized as well as the situation, relationship type, time pressure, and communication goals with the conflict. Each of these plays a role in whether we engage in the conflict or avoid it completely. A systems approach is a combination of the other two. Individual differences are recognized here and are held as a result of socialization and personal disposition, but the situation is also recognized as influencing the conflict.
Conflict is often categorized with two dimensions in mind: concern for self and concern for other. The first dimension considers the extent to which people engage in their own facework, while the second dimension considers the face and desires of others. These combine to result in five conflict styles.
In avoiding, the conflict is simply dodged. This demonstrates a low concern for self, because your own needs are not being addressed let alone met, and a low concern for other because you're backing away. In avoiding the conflict, it cannot really be resolved.
A person using a competing or dominating style seeks to have his or her own way, regardless of the impact or cost on the other person. This represents a high concern for self and low concern for other. One's own interests are protected and fought for while the other's interests are essentially steamrolled. Communication behaviors here include tactics of aggressiveness, defensiveness, control and domination.
An accommodating or obliging style demonstrates a low concern for self and high concern for other. Your own needs aren't being addressed while the other person's are accepted in full. This can be useful in situations where the relationship is valued over the conflict.
In compromising, both parties gain something but both parties lose something as well. Neither gets all she or he wants. This style represents a medium concern for self and a medium concern for other. Common tactics are appeals to fairness, trade-offs, and other quick short-term fixes.
An integrative or collaborative conflict style reflects a high concern for self and a high concern for other. Solutions which satisfy everyone's goals are sought. Nonevaluative descriptive messages, qualifying statements and hedges, and statements that demonstrate mutual interest are common in collaborating.

The concept of face ties quite closely with the individualistic-collectivistic scale and relates to conflict styles as well. Those who are more individualistic will be more concerned with self-face, while those of collectivistic cultures will be highly concerned with other- or mutual-face preservation strategies. Those concerned with protecting self-face will tend to use a direct conflict style, while those concerned with other- or mutual-face will tend to use a much more indirect style in efforts to preserve relational harmony. The more individualistic or independent you are, you'll likely use more linear logic, coupled with self-defensiveness, domination, and competitive conflict styles. Those of collectivistic perspectives will use more spiral logic along with integrative and compromising conflict styles.

In sum, in interacting with individuals from other cultures, differences in conflict styles and approaches emerge. Here perhaps more than in other situations, given the emotional escalation common to conflict situations, care must be taken to remain flexible.

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Individualists finding themselves in conflict within a collectivistic culture or with an individual from a collectivistic culture would do well to keep the following in mind. First, be aware of face-saving concerns, especially in terms of balancing humiliation and pride, respect and disrespect, and shame and honor. Second, be patient and observe mindfully. Give yourself a few seconds before responding. Be aware of past experiences that are shaping your behavior in this one. Also, collectivists tend to focus on how questions, so be aware of this and limit your why questions. Third, be a mindful listener. Pay attention to nonverbal cues.

For collectivists engaging in conflict with individualists, another set of recommendations may apply. First, try to be assertive and practice a conflict communication style that allows everyone the right to speak equally. Second, use "I" statements and ask more why questions. Third, as a mindful listener, paraphrase often and learn to occasionally verbalize your emotions, attitudes, and experiences within the conflict situation itself. That is, don't rely too heavily on nonverbal cues or count on others to read yours.

It's vital to be able to take others' perspectives into consideration when engaging in intercultural conflict. Remember that every culture is unique (even though there are often similarities), and has its own set of values and priorities that guide conflict behavior. Be sensitive to this as well as flexible and adaptable.
Global Identity: Communicating with a Cross-Cultural Audience

We live in a world today where people from all over the world can easily share information at the press of a button. Over 536 million people around the world have tuned in to the internet, and Web 2.0 has made web-based social communication possible. The language of the internet is largely English, and through communication in English, global connections are forged and maintained. In this very public space, we communicate with multiple others through blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. We can all share in an event a world away through the use of live feeds. This global identity of individuals has brought a new avenue to intercultural communication.

With the easy spread of information via technological advancements comes ease in sharing other media forms as well. Many US films and television programs reach global audiences, either in local language voice-over or sub-titles. Hip-hop music, sometimes referred to as rap, began with African-American youths expressing their dissatisfaction with their social position at the fringes of society and discouragement with racial oppression and general inequality of life. It was an art form. It exploded when white teens began to buy the music. Hip-hop music has now had a global influence.

Fashion is a third component that joins people from so many different cultures along a common theme. There are global fashion centers and influential trendsetters. Around the globe, people follow the latest trends, preferring to be "in" rather than "out", with fashion an easy surface indicator of who's "cool" and who's not. Together, these influences reach people around the globe, having the effect of minimizing cultural differences as we are all receiving some of the same influences. This results in more of a global culture. Globalization has changed the idea of culture – each culture is not as distinct as it once was, but tends to share some global and local factors.

Despite similarities resulting from popular culture influences, nations are not culturally homogenous. Therefore, a nation or its people cannot be considered singularly. Multiple demographic differences exist among a nation's people: age, social class, gender, education, religion, and more. Therefore, generalizations about a nation's people are often flawed, as there are a great number of people who will not fit them. Consequently, individual values may be a better predictor of behavior than cultural values. Globalization is a factor of diversity. When communicating with a diverse audience, no cultural generalizations can be relied upon completely, though they can help inform our communication choices.

Considerations for communicating with an intercultural audience

Since cultural generalizations are unreliable due to demographic – and life experience, values, perspectives and attitudes – differences within cultures, in communicating with diverse cultural audience, qualities of general intercultural competent communication come into play.

First, it is important to be aware that whatever you say or do, you are communicating a message. How that message is interpreted by the receiver may be beyond your control, as it is based on myriad influences from the recipient's life, and the recipient's set of perceptual filters. But you can be aware that you're sending messages, even if you can't control how they're received. In this awareness, being mindful of your behaviors can help minimize unintended interpretations.

To be flexible intercultural communicators, appropriateness, effectiveness and adaptability are the key characteristics.Briefly, being appropriate is to behave in ways that are generally perceived as acceptable for the situation. Effectiveness means that you are getting your message across. In a sense, effectiveness and appropriateness are linked in that if you are behaving inappropriately, you're probably also not going to be effective. Adaptability means your ability to shift and move with the situation and its demands. These three characteristics comprise the foundation of quality intercultural communications. In order to accomplish this, it is helpful to bear in mind some components of intercultural communication.

In order to be effective, appropriate, and adapt your message to your audience, you first must have an idea of who your audience is. Cultural values, as discussed in lesson 2, largely influence an individual's communications. What a person expects from an interaction and a person's (appropriate) behavior within that interaction vary across cultures and align with cultural values. Therefore, even a superficial understanding of some key cultural values can be very useful in informing your communications with an intercultural audience. The most essential cultural value to keep in mind is the individualism-collectivism position, followed closely by power distance. These two dimensions have the most profound effects on an individual's communication behaviors and patterns, as they factor deeply in an individual's perception of self-to-other relations.

A third major influencer of communication is the low-context versus high-context communication style, as discussed in lesson 3. This refers to the level of directness (low-context) or indirectness (high-context) a culture's people tend to sense is appropriate in sending a message. Considerations of face always factor into an appropriate and effective interaction, but within an intercultural context these may take on heightened meaning if dealing with people from more collectivistic cultures.

Nonverbal cues can be especially powerful in sending messages, particularly given our mind's natural tendency to fill in blanks of missing information about what we see and experience. It is perhaps important to keep in mind that gestures have different meanings in different cultures, so don't expect a "thumbs-up" to necessarily be perceived in the way that you intend. In fact, in some cultures this is a very vulgar gesture. Further, it may be prudent to be mindful of considerations of personal space, and the physical distance people need in order to be at a comfortable speaking distance.

In interacting with an intercultural audience, there is no place for this. Your audience needs to be met with no prejudgments of any kind for you to have any hope of your message being appropriate or effective.

Our technological advances have globalized our world, minimized individual cultural distinctions, and helped construct a global identity. This makes communication across cultures much more likely today than it was in the past, and considerations of appropriate and effective intercultural communication all the more salient. Ultimately, this boils down to being flexible intercultural communicators.