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date: 22 August 2017

Intercultural Conflict

Summary and Keywords

Conflict, as part of interpersonal interactions, occurs in specific cultural settings. Viewing conflict as cultural behavior helps explain why disputes over seemingly similar issues can be handled so dissimilarly in different cultures. There have been numerous cross-cultural comparison studies of different conflict management strategies, most of them utilizing a “national culture” approach. The findings reported in the cross-cultural conflict literature point to a picture that collectivists value harmonious interpersonal relationships with others, preferring indirect or avoiding styles of dealing with conflict and showing concern for face-saving. Understanding the range of behavior choices and strategies available to manage conflict as well as differences in preferred styles adds considerably to people’s skills as effective communicators.

Keywords: cultural conflict, face negotiation theory, managerial grid, cross-cultural conflict, intercultural miscommunication, conflict management

Backgrounds in Conflict Management Literature

Conflict is an inherent part of the human condition and experience. Problems of cross-cultural conflict are particularly acute in today’s world. The growth in foreign travel for business, study, and pleasure, the migration of people seeking work in other countries, and the expansion of international trade have all naturally led to an increase in contacts across national and ethnic borders, together with severe communication problems and conflict situations. Conflict as a concept can help explain many aspects of social life such as conflicts of interests, social disagreement, and fighting between individuals as well as groups, organizations, or nations (Kim & Leung, 2000).

Conflict can be present in various social situations ranging from stranger-to-stranger interaction to interpersonal and intergroup settings. If managed competently, conflict can help individuals to express their needs, clarify misunderstandings, as well as strengthen common interests and goals (Ting-Toomey & Oetzel, 2001). When involved in conflict, people may have different expectations about how the conflict should be handled. These expectations are based on the underlying cultural values and norms, and thus they vary across cultures.

Cross-cultural conflict is a topic with a growing body of literature. There have been numerous cross-cultural comparison studies of different conflict management strategies, most studies utilizing a “national culture” approach (e.g., Cushman & King, 1985; Kumagai & Straus, 1983; Lee & Rogan, 1991; Nomura & Barnlund, 1983). Typically, “cross-cultural” means a comparison and contrast between two cultural groups, while “intercultural” refers to what happens when people from these two groups come together. Many studies have sought to describe the differences in style use between members of different cultures. However, other studies have begun to test theory-based hypotheses in an attempt not only to describe but also to understand the differences in conflict handling between cultures (e.g., Chiu & Kosinski, 1994; Chua & Gudykunst, 1987; Ting-Toomey et al., 1991; Trubisky, Ting-Toomey, & Lin, 1991).

Conflict researchers have proffered a range of different definitions for conflict. Conflict is typically defined as a state of social relationship in which incompatible goals or expectations between two or more parties give rise to a struggle between them. Conflict can also be viewed as a communicative exchange between at least two interdependent parties who have different, opposite, or incompatible opinions, needs, and goals and who perceive that the other is interfering in the achievement of his or her goals. Although conflict is a normal part of human life, providing numerous opportunities for psychological growth through empathy, understanding, and insight, there is a tendency to view conflict as a negative experience caused by abnormally difficult circumstances.

Indeed, there are different types of conflicts: pseudo conflicts and simple conflicts (Miller & Steinberg, 1975). Simple conflicts stem from actual incompatible goals or scarce resources, while pseudo conflicts arise from a communicative misunderstanding between involved parties. Given that conflict communication is generally characterized by many ostensible differences between interaction partners, such as different expectations, the potential for pseudo conflicts is great. Often it is not the content of conflict that creates tensions or frictions, rather, it is the different styles that create uncertainty and anxiety in the conflict encounter situation. Coser (1956) draws between realistic and unrealistic conflict. Realistic conflicts are those that remain focused on substantive issues, whereas unrealistic conflicts are those dominated by attempts to defeat or harm the other. This distinction because it draws attention to the potential irrationality of some conflict situations where one side will say or do seemingly anything to maintain his or her position of dominance.

There are other classifications of conflict, including interpersonal, intergroup, and interorganizational conflict. Interpersonal conflict occurs between two or more individuals who are in opposition to one another (not representing the group they are a part of). Intergroup conflict takes place among members of different teams or groups, and interorganizational conflict occurs between two or more organizations, for example, when different businesses compete against one another. At these different levels, a conflict may reach different intensities, scales, or stages.

It is important to recognize that with an increase in the global flow of people, it is difficult to maintain neat distinctions between interpersonal and intergroup interaction when, in practice, gender, racial, religious, and other sources of social identity can arise at any moment in conflict interaction. Furthermore, the interpersonal classification of cross-cultural conflict applies to multiple contexts of communication including intimate relationships, families, leader–member relationships, and co-worker relationships.

According to Ting-Toomey (1989), context includes components such as situational and relational context (relational context refers to the influence of family or friendship networks). Ting-Toomey and Oetzel (2013), in their culture-based situational conflict model, proposed five contextual levels of analysis: macrosystem, exosystem, mesosystem, microsystem, and chronosystem. “Macrolevel” analysis focuses on the history, values, beliefs, and ideologies of a culture that influence interactants’ conflict perspectives and behaviors. In comparison, “exolevel” analysis looks at the influence of established institutions and their formal procedures or policies on the community and individuals’ reactions and actions. Meanwhile, “mesolevel” analysis examines the influences of immediate groups (e.g., family) and organizations (e.g., the workplace or religious groups) on the conflict parties and conflict episodes. “Microlevel” analysis looks at both intrapersonal (e.g., identity issues and attributions) and interpersonal (e.g., actual face-to-face or social media interactions) levels of interpretation and communication manifested in the actual conflict settings. The final level, the “chronosystem level,” refers to the developmental time span of the case history. Together, these multicontextual levels of analysis can provide a comprehensive understanding of diverse conflict situations—from everyday intercultural-intergroup conflicts to abusive family conflict events. Furthermore, one’s self- system depends heavily on the context in which the encounter takes place. How one constructs and presents a “self” in a relationship is, to a large degree, situation-dependent (see Ting-Toomey, 1989; Triandis, 1989). Putnam and Wilson (1982) suggest that situational constraints—nature of the conflict, relationship between participants—may also influence the choice of conflict style.

Conflict Management

Defining “Conflict”

Conflict researchers have proffered a plethora of different definitions for conflict. Simons (1972) defines conflict as a state of social relationship in which incompatible interests between two or more parties give rise to a struggle between them. Ting-Toomey (1985) calls it a form of intense interpersonal and/or intrapersonal dissonance (tension or antagonism) between two or more interdependent parties based on incompatible goals, needs, desires, values, beliefs, and/or attitudes. Schneer and Chanin (1987) view conflict as a natural phenomenon involving individual perceptions of a continuous process between two or more interacting parties with incompatible goals, ideas, values, behaviors, or emotions. Thomas (1976) considers dyadic conflict as a process that includes the perceptions, emotions, behaviors, and outcomes of two parties when one party perceives that the other has frustrated, or is about to frustrate, one of his or her concerns.

For the purposes of this entry, the domain of conflict will be limited to interpersonal conflict. Thus, conflict is defined as a communicative exchange between at least two interdependent parties who have different, opposite, or incompatible opinions and goals and who perceive that the other is interfering in the achievement of his or her goals (Hocker & Wilmot, 1995; Lulofs, 1993; Putnam & Wilson, 1982; Ting-Toomey, 1988).

The process of conflict management is the foundation for more effective conflict resolution. A distinction between conflict management and conflict resolution is needed since the concepts often are confused or combined in an inappropriate manner. Conflict resolution typically refers to methods and processes which result in the resolution of the underlying incompatibilities in a conflict and facilitation of the peaceful ending of conflict, while conflict management refers to the implementation of measures and strategies that limit, mitigate, and/or contain a conflict without necessarily solving it.

Prior Conflict Management Styles and Typologies

Some of the most severe problems in intercultural relations arise as a consequence of interpersonal conflicts. Understanding the ways in which people from different cultures approach resolving conflicts is, therefore, of great importance. Inquiry into culture dependency in the 1980s began with examinations of differences in conflict style use between members of different cultures (e.g., Kagan, Knight, & Martinez-Romero, 1982; Kumagai & Straus, 1983). Researchers later began testing theory-based hypotheses in an attempt not only to describe but also to understand the differences in handling conflict between cultures. Some of these also introduced situational factors to examine the situational dependency of interpersonal conflict.

When in conflict, individuals often demonstrate preferences for certain communication styles. Dealing with intercultural conflict can be a difficult and uncomfortable process. Communication is the means by which conflict receives a social definition, the instrument through which influence in conflict is exercised, and the vehicle by which involved parties may prevent, manage, or resolve conflict. Since much conflict is managed through verbal means, individuals’ overall communication patterns should influence conflict management styles as well.

Interpersonal conflict may be handled with various styles of behavior. There have been many attempts to measure interpersonal conflict management styles (Kilmann & Thomas, 1975; Putnam & Wilson, 1982; Rahim, 1983; Rusbult & Zembrodt, 1983; Sillars, 1980). Beginning with Blake and his associates (Blake & Mouton, 1964; Blake, Shepard, & Mouton, 1964), five proposed conflict styles were organized on a two-dimensional grid. These styles and dimensions were then renamed several times, and several instruments were devised to measure the styles.

In the early 1940s, researchers started using a one-dimensional approach to studying methods of conflict management. In this one dimension, competition and cooperation formed as opposite poles. Later, Blake and Mouton (1964) proposed a two-dimensional conflict grid. Popular conflict management scales (e.g., the Rahim Organizational Conflict Inventory; Rahim, 1983; Thomas & Kilmann, 1978) rely heavily on Blake and Mouton’s (1964) conceptualization of conflict management, which yields a five-style configuration based the two dimensions (self- vs. other-concern). The first dimension explains the degree to which a person attempts to satisfy his or her own concern or face need. The second dimension explains the degree to which a person wants to satisfy the other’s face need. Combination of the two dimensions was conceptualized to result in the following styles: (a) dominating style (high self-face need and low other-face need), (b) integrating style (high self-face need and high other-face need), (c) compromising style (a mutual face need via middle-of-the-road solutions), (d) avoiding style (a low self-face need and low other-face need), and (e) obliging style (a low self-face need and high other-face need).

The five style schemes of conflict handling was used by different teams of researchers including Lawrence and Lorsch (1967), Thomas and Kilmann (1978), and Rahim and Bonoma (1979; Rahim, 1983). Thomas and Kilmann’s Management of Differences Exercise (MODE) (1978) has also been a popular instrument for conflict management studies. Kilmann and Thomas (1975) classified five conflict styles—competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating. These styles are reflections of the two underlying cognitive/affective dimensions: assertiveness (attempting to satisfy one’s own concerns) and cooperation (attempting to satisfy the other person’s concerns). As interpreted by Thomas (1976), competing is a power-oriented mode in which one pursues one’s own concerns at the other person’s expense in a manner that is both assertive and uncooperative. Collaboration is an assertive and cooperative approach where one party attempts to work with the other party in an effort to find an integrative and mutually satisfying solution. Avoiding occurs when one is unassertive and yet uncooperative. Interests are not articulated and the conflict is postponed to resurface at a later stage. Accommodation represents a mix of cooperativeness and unassertiveness and occurs when one neglects one’s own concerns in order to satisfy the concerns of the other party. Compromising represents an intermediate position in terms of both assertiveness and cooperation and a situation where both parties satisfy at least some of their concerns.

While a couple of studies do support the construct validity of a five-style scheme (Rahim, 1983) and two dimensions (Ruble & Thomas, 1976), several other studies have found support for only three styles. Several factor analyses of Lawrence and Lorsch’s (1967) instrument resulted in three rather than five factors (Fry, Kidron, Osborn, & Trafton, 1980). In the same way, Putnam and Wilson’s (1982) factor analysis of a pool of items designed to tap Blake and Mouton’s (1964) five styles revealed only three factors, which they named the nonconfrontation (avoidance and soothing strategies), solution-oriented (problem-solving and compromising strategies), and control (forcing strategies) conflict strategies.

In Kim, Lee, Kim, and Hunter’s (2004) study using individuals from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, only three discrete dimensions of conflict styles emerged: compromising/integrating, obliging/avoiding, and dominating. Kim et al. (2004) found the integrating and compromising styles to be highly correlated with each other; the same also was found for the obliging and avoiding styles. The similarity between compromising and integrating styles may stem from the fact that both styles aim for an acceptable solution; in the compromising approach the conflicting parties settle for the middle ground, and in the integrating approach the parties focus on an integrative or creative solution (see Putnam & Wilson, 1982). The reason why the obliging and avoiding styles formed one factor may stem from the fact that both strategies partly involve “giving in” to the other’s wishes. Conceptually, the three factors resemble Horney’s (1945) typology of moving away from (nonconfrontation), moving toward (solution-orientation), and moving against (control) the opposing party.

Rahim (1986) makes the claim that due to greater work experience, experienced employees can distinguish among the five styles (i.e., integrating, obliging, dominating, avoiding, and compromising) while inexperienced employees and students cannot. However, even his own conceptual definitions of obliging and avoiding seem to have confounding similarities. Obligers, he says, attempt to play down the differences. At the same time, he describes avoiders as those who refuse to publicly acknowledge the existence of a conflict. Both styles seem to describe the same basic behavior of trying to smooth over or suppressing the conflict.

There is another set of three methods of conflict outlined by Filley and House (1969): the win-lose method, the lose-lose method, and the win-win method. In the win-lose method, one party will lose in the conflict and the other will win. The authors claim that in the lose-lose situation, many people employ avoidance techniques rather than personally confront the other party. The last style of conflict, win-win, ultimately leads to both parties winning in the situation. The reason it is called “win-win” is because a final solution is reached that is acceptable to both parties.

The dual concern model has for several decades been a popular method of organizing five conflict styles on a grid formed by the dimensions of seeking one’s own concerns and seeking that of the other party (Blake & Mouton, 1964; Blake, Shepard, & Mouton, 1964; Rahim, 1983; Thomas, 1976; Thomas & Kilmann, 1978). Ironically, although most conflict styles theorists have been profoundly influenced by the two-dimensional managerial grid, the factor structures of the instruments have been disparate, inconsistent, or unclear. Conflict categories have been located within dimensional structures that are researcher-defined and researcher-salient (see Nicotera, 1993, for further discussion on this issue).

Research on conflict management styles has found that individuals tend to use one or two of the above five strategies more than the others. For instance, some people predominantly use collaborating when in interpersonal conflict situations. In other words, although there are five different ways to handle conflicts, such a person is more likely to collaborate than they are to force, accommodate, avoid, or compromise. People who are very skilled at conflict management are able to (a) understand interpersonal conflict situations and (b) use the appropriate conflict management strategy for each situation. It is important to remember that there are many strategies we can use in conflict situations, but people tend to habitually use some strategies more often than others.

It is important to note that the work in this area has been biased by the individualistic assumption that confrontation is more desirable than avoidance, which limits a full understanding of the conflict phenomenon. Hsieh, Shybut, and Lotsof (1969) captured the essence of the individualistic ideology in describing mainstream American culture as “a culture that emphasizes the uniqueness, independence, and self-reliance of each individual …” It, among other things, places a high value on the ideology of “openness” in conflict resolution. Given the general assumption of the desirability of direct confrontation of conflicts, it is not surprising that researchers have conceptualized the avoidance styles as reflective of low concern for self as well as low concern for the other. This assumption is taken so much for granted in individualistic cultures that it has rarely been stated explicitly.

Research on Cross-Cultural Conflict Management

Conflict management styles are viewed as patterned responses to conflict situations through diverse communication strategies. Conflict management does not necessarily mean resolving conflict. Rather, it should be viewed as an ongoing process of handling conflict interactions. Conflict research has used different terms for conflict management, such as conflict “handling/management/resolution” or “styles/strategies/behaviors/modes/orientations.”

When in conflict, individuals often demonstrate preferences for certain communication styles (Roloff, 1987). Nadler, Nadler, and Broome (1985) state: “Communication is the means by which conflict receives a social definition, the instrument through which influence in conflict is exercised, and the vehicle by which partisans or third parties may prevent, manage or resolve conflict” (p. 90). Since much conflict is managed through verbal means, individual’s general communication patterns should influence conflict management styles as well.

Virtually every investigation of cross-cultural, interpersonal conflict has focused on identifying the styles of conflict management (as manifested by scores on conflict style scales), rather than their actual communicative practices. In Putnam and Poole’s (1987) terms, research on conflict “center[s] on predispositions or modes for managing interpersonal disagreements rather than enacted behaviors” (p. 19). Thus, conflict management styles in this article denote the perceptions of appropriate conflict management behaviors rather than actual communicative strategy choices.

Preferred Modes of Conflict Management in Different Cultures

Conflict, as part of interpersonal interactions, occurs in specific cultural settings. Viewing conflict as a cultural behavior helps explain why disagreements over seemingly similar issues can be handled so dissimilarly in different cultures. The notion that the East and the West differ in many traditional values, beliefs, and behavioral patterns is hardly new, and there is a large literature documenting cultural differences in conflict styles.

Research on conflict management across cultures clearly indicates that there are differences in conflict styles in individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Using the data from international students studying in the United States, Chua and Gudykunst (1987) found that members of low-context cultures used solution orientations more than members of high-context cultures, while members of high-context cultures used nonconfrontation more than members of low-context cultures. Bond, Leung, Wan, and Giacalone (1985) found that Chinese (a low individualistic culture) respondents were more likely to advise an executive to meet with an insulter and a target of the insult separately so that conflict between the two could be avoided. North Americans (a high individualistic culture), on the other hand, more frequently advised a joint meeting, so the problem between the insulter and the target could be openly resolved. Also consistent with this research are findings from studies on conflict resolution styles of Mexicans (a low individualistic culture) and Anglo Americans (Kagan, Knight, & Martinez-Romero, 1982; Kagan & Madsen, 1971). These studies revealed that Mexican participants tend to use more passive, avoidance conflict strategies, while Anglo-Americans tend to use more active, confrontational strategies.

In testing for differences concerning African American and Euro-American conflict styles, Ting-Toomey (1986) found that African American participants tend to use more controlling style strategies than do Euro-American participants, and Euro-American participants tend to use more solution-oriented style strategies than do African American participants. Tang and Kirkbride (1986) also report cultural differences in conflict-handling orientations in the Hong Kong Civil Service between local Chinese and expatriate British executives. The results of the study clearly suggest significant differences in conflict-handling preferences, with the Chinese executives favoring the less assertive compromising and avoiding behaviors as their dominant orientations, while their British counterparts preferred the more assertive collaborating and competing orientations. In a subsequent extension study, Kirkbride, Tang, and Westwood (1991) gathered data, using the MODE instrument, from 981 Hong Kong Chinese respondents between 1986 and 1987. Overall, these results reveal that Chinese cultural values and cognitive orientations have influenced the Chinese people to preserve overt harmony by avoiding confrontation and to adopt a nonassertive approach to conflict resolution.

Lee and Rogan (1991) found that while Korean participants tend to use solution-oriented conflict strategies, North American participants tend to use either controlling or avoidance strategies. While the finding on the use of competitive, controlling strategies by North Americans has been supported by this research, the finding on avoidance strategies is surprising. The researchers speculated that this finding may be due to the fact that the U.S. data were obtained in the southern region of the country wherein group cohesion is relatively higher in the South than in other parts of the country. Also, a study done by Sue and Kitano (1973) found that Asian American families were more conforming and cohesive than their Caucasian counterparts. Nomura and Barnlund (1983) found that Japanese prefer passive forms of criticisms, while North Americans prefer active forms.

Further, Leung and Iwawaki (1988) and Leung (1988) observed that members of individualistic cultures tend to use a direct conflict communication style and solution-orientation style, and members of collectivistic cultures tend to use an indirect conflict communication style and an avoidant style. In addition, collectivists also displayed a stronger preference for conflict mediation and bargaining procedure than individualists (Leung, 1987).

More recently, Ting-Toomey et al. (1991) employed Rahim’s (1983) Organizational Conflict Inventory-II (ROCI-II) to test face-negotiation theory. “Face” is defined as the claimed sense of self-image in a relational situation (Ting-Toomey, 1988). Ting-Toomey (1988) explained the differences in conflict management styles in individualistic and collectivistic cultures using the concept of facework. According to Ting-Toomey (1988), individualists tend to value autonomy face needs and self-concern face needs, whereas collectivists emphasize approval face needs and other-concern or mutual-concern face needs. It was predicted that in conflict interaction, the self-concern face is expressed by using direct face-negotiation strategies and controlling face mode, while the other-concern need is expressed by using indirect face-negotiation strategies and the affiliative smoothing face mode. In Ting-Toomey et al.’s (1991) study, in relating the face set with the conflict set, results suggest that other-face contributes most strongly to integrating, avoiding, and compromising styles. On the other hand, self-face contributes most strongly to dominating styles.

The findings reported in the cross-cultural conflict literature indicate that collectivists value harmonious interpersonal relationships with others (Cathcart & Cathcart, 1976), preferring indirect styles of dealing with conflict (Chua & Gudykunst, 1987; Cushman & King, 1985; Obuchi & Takahashi, 1994; Ting-Toomey, 1988), and showing concern for face-saving (Nomura & Barnlund, 1983; Sueda & Wiseman, 1992).

Most comparative analyses of conflict management behavior, however, contrasted groups such as Japanese (“collectivists”) and Americans (“individualists”). As an exception, Leung, Au, Fernandez-Dols, and Iwawaki (1992), in their study on procedural justice, contrasted two collectivist societies, Japan from the East and Spain from the West. As another rare exception, Gire and Carment (1993) analyzed the differences in procedural preferences between students from Nigeria (a non-Asian collectivist society) and Canada (an individualistic society). The results were not in line with previous research. Not only did Canadian participants show a clear preference for negotiation, but Nigerian participants also showed an almost equal preference for both negotiation and arbitration.

Conflict styles based on the two assumed dimensions have been frequently adopted by many cross-cultural communication researchers. Members of the collectivistic culture were found to use a higher level of compromising and integrating styles to handle conflict than members of the individualistic culture (Trubisky et al., 1991). Overall, the evidence suggests that members of individualistic cultures tend to prefer direct (dominating) conflict communication styles. Conversely, members of collectivistic cultures tend to prefer obliging, compromising, integrating, and conflict-avoidant styles. The latter four styles tend to emphasize the value for passive compliance to a certain degree and for maintaining relational harmony in conflict interactions (see Trubisky et al., 1991).

The models relying on Blake and Mouton’s (1964) work conceptualize avoiding (or withdrawal style) as either negative and/or destructive. According to Rahim (1983), avoiding styles reflect “low concern for self” and “low concern for others.” Putnam and Wilson (1982) also consider avoidance or nonconfrontation as “lose-lose” style. Thomas (1976) interprets avoiding as “unassertive” and “uncooperative.” Brown, Yelsma, and Keller (1981) claimed that withdrawing action means “negative feelings” and “low task energy.” The flavor of these scales is that confrontation is more desirable than avoidance.

Many studies have sought to not only to describe but also to understand the differences in conflict-handling styles between cultures. For instance, while past literature in interpersonal and organizational conflict tends to view the avoidance style as reflective of both low concern for self and low concern for the other, the use of avoiding style in collectivistic cultures seems to be associated positively with the other-face concern dimension.

Past U.S. literature (e.g., Canary & Spitzberg, 1987; Rahim, 1983) in interpersonal and organizational conflict tends to conceptualize the avoidance style as reflective of low concern for both self and other. According to Filley and House (1969), in the lose-lose conflict situation, people are more likely to employ avoidance technique rather than personally confront the other party. In dealing with children’s conflict resolution skills, Bryant (1992) claimed that both anger/retaliation and withdrawal/avoidance are potentially disruptive to social relationships. However, avoidance of conflict can help the individual to control the emotion and may at times also allow the passive expression of discontentment without the dangers of a direct challenge. Specifically, just like inferences regarding silences, avoidance of conflict can be seen as negative politeness—being nice to others by not imposing (see Tannen, 1985, for similar arguments regarding cultural differences in perceptions of silence). The benefits of using avoidance strategies comes from being understood without putting one’s meaning on record, so that understanding is seen not as the result of putting meaning into words, but rather as the greater understanding of shared perspective, expectations, and intimacy. For instance, in exploring Chinese conflict management styles in joint ventures in the People’s Republic of China, Ding (1996) reported the reasons why managers of joint ventures in China say they would use the different conflict styles as conceptualized and measured in the West. According to the author, those Chinese managers explained that to them “avoiding” meant a “proactive retreat for the purpose of advancing” or “to pursue by making a detour.” Contrary to Western understandings of avoidance as non-assertive, these responses frame it as a form of action and effectively disrupt dominant understandings of what it means to “avoid.”

Some researchers, while considering argument (direct confrontation of matter) as a beneficial and prosocial mode of conflict resolution, view avoidance as less socially acceptable (e.g., Infante, Trebing, Shepherd, & Seeds, 1984). Because of the individualistic bias, researchers have overlooked the potentially positive attributes of conflict avoidance and suppression. They have ignored the dialectic between conflict avoidance and confrontation and the complexity of avoidance as a conflict management strategy. According to Roloff (1987), conflict suppression or avoidance provides necessary stability for individual and coordinated action, even though it may also have negative effects. As Roloff (1987) rightly points out, minimal research has explored this seemingly necessary balance between conflict avoidance and confrontation.

The degree of collectivist/individualist orientation in a particular society may systematically affect the importance of relational concerns. Collectivism is often associated with a strong emphasis on interpersonal harmony and preferences for affiliation. 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.

Kim (2002) suggested that interdependents are less openly assertive and emotional in conflict situations due to their heightened sensitivity to the others’ face needs. Thus, they naturally lead to the adoption of high compromising and avoiding behaviors and a relatively low preference for competing and assertive postures. The interdependents’ imperative toward group-mindedness, relationship-centeredness, and the need to maintain interpersonal equilibrium may militate against the adoption of open confrontation and overtly competitive styles of behavior. Avoiding and compromising styles may serve to work to dilute antagonisms that might otherwise surface in the immediate situation. The fear of shame as a result of damaging or ruffling the social fabric or damaging someone else’s face would also lead interdependents to avoid assertive or direct styles of handling conflicts. These arguments all suggest a likely preference among high interdependents for saving the other’s face in conflict management. It may seem better to avoid the possibility of losing the other’s face by engaging in avoidance behavior.

Research has begun and should be continued to better understand the ways in which people prefer to handle interpersonal conflicts and how that preference varies upon cultural and other variables. Such knowledge of conflict-related behavioral tendencies might help in the development of strategies for interpersonal, intercultural conflict resolution or prevention.

Practical Implications

The ability to resolve social conflicts successfully depends in large measure on being able to accurately predict the effectiveness of conflict management strategies. The much abused terms, such as “communication breakdown” or “cross-cultural miscommunication” (Coupland, Giles, & Wiemann, 1991), can often be attributed to different perceptions regarding the choices of conflict tactics. For instance, “communication breakdown” in conflict situations typically occurs because interactants disagree about the effectiveness or social appropriateness of one another’s conflict strategies. An individual’s beliefs about the appropriateness of conflict strategies are apt to affect what conflict tactics and strategies she or he chooses and what inferences she or he makes about her or his own and others’ conflict handling behavior. Different cultural orientations seem to cause one to have drastically different ideas about what constitutes an appropriate conflict strategy or tactic.

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 homogeneous. 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. 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 (see Kim & Leung, 2000).

In the mainstream U.S. context, open controversy has been considered normal and beneficial for decision-making. Furthermore, conflict suppression has been viewed as causing misunderstanding, lack of innovativeness, resentment, and long-term conflict escalation. Conflict suppression or avoidance may provide necessary stability for individual and coordinated action, but it may also have negative effects. Furthermore, researchers began to explore emic conflict styles. Emics are culture-specific aspects of a phenomenon that are necessary to an understanding of the culture’s indigenous conception of that phenomenon. Therefore, conflict researchers began to search for emic conflict management styles to produce a complete understanding of how conflict is managed in other cultures.

Theories on cross-cultural conflict styles are still in their infancy. Continuous conceptual refinement and diverse means of testing theories should yield the further understanding of the cross-cultural conflict communication processes. In the era of the multicultural society, cultural diversity in conflict management styles is being recognized, understood, and appropriately used in organizations and interpersonal settings. Given that cross-cultural interactions are burgeoning, there has never been such a sore need for knowledge about conflict styles in different cultures. Continuous conceptual refinement and diverse means of testing theories will yield further understanding of the cross-cultural conflict communication processes.

Further Reading

Canary, D., & Spitzberg, B. (1989). A model of perceived competence of conflict strategies. Human Communication Research, 15, 630–649.Find this resource:

Chusmir, L., & Mills, J. (1989). Gender differences in conflict resolution styles of managers: At work and at home. Sex Roles, 20, 149–162.Find this resource:

Conrad, C. (1991). Communication in conflict: Style-strategy relationships. Communication Monographs, 58, 135–155.Find this resource:

Fitzpatrick, M. A., & Winke, J. (1979). You always hurt the one you love: Strategies and tactics in interpersonal conflict. Communication Quarterly, 27, 3–11.Find this resource:

Folger, J. P., Poole, M. S., & Stutman, R. K. (2013). Working through conflict: Strategies for relationships, groups and organizations (7th ed.). Boston: Pearson.Find this resource:

Lebra, S. L. (1984). Nonconfrontational strategies for management of interpersonal conflict. In E. S. Krauss, T. P. Rohlem & P. G. Steinhoff (Eds.), Conflict in Japan (pp. 41–60). Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.Find this resource:

Ohbuchi, K., & Takahashi, Y. (1994). Cultural styles of conflict management in Japanese and Americans: Passivity, covertness, and effectiveness of strategies. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 1345–1366.Find this resource:

Van de Vliert, E., & Prein, H. C. M. (1989). The difference in the meaning of forcing in the conflict management of actors and observers. In M. A. Rahim (Ed.), Managing conflict: An interdisciplinary approach. New York: Praeger.Find this resource:


Blake, R. R., & Mouton, J. S. (1964). The managerial grid. Houston: Gulf Publishing.Find this resource:

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