Conflict Cultural Values and conflict resolution are inextricably linked to culture. Throughout our lives and relationships, cultures are like underground rivers that carry messages that influence how we perceive, attribute, judge, and view ourselves and others. Despite Cultural Values’ power, it is often unconscious, influencing conflict and trying to resolve it in ways that are imperceptible. There is more to culture than language, dress, and food customs. While cultural groups may share race, ethnicity, or nationality, they also differ in generation, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, physical ability, political affiliation, and language. There are two things that are important to remember about cultures: they are constantly changing and they are related to the symbolic dimension of life. We constantly create meaning and enact our identities within the symbolic dimension. As members of groups, we receive cultural messages that provide information about what is meaningful or important to us, and who we are in the world and in relation to others.
Cultural Values messages are the things that everyone in a group knows that outsiders do not. As the fish swim in the water, they are unaware that it affects their vision. These lenses influence what we perceive, interpret, and where we draw boundaries. Cultural starting points and currencies play an important role in shaping our values. A starting point is that place where it seems natural to begin, whether it is with personal or group concerns, with a larger picture, or with particulars. Our interactions with others are influenced and shaped by our currencies.
An overview of how cultures work
While largely hidden from view, Cultural Values constitute a dynamic set of starting points that orient us in certain directions and away from others. We all belong to multiple Cultural Values that communicate messages about what is acceptable, appropriate, and expected. It is often a sign that our Cultural Values and expectations are different when others fail to meet our expectations. In some cases, we may mistake differences between us and others for a lack of good faith or common sense on their part, not realizing that common sense is also culturally based. A common practice for one group may appear strange, counterintuitive, or incorrect to another.
We understand relationships through Cultural Values messages, including how to deal with the conflict and harmony that are always present whenever two or more people gather together. It is difficult to write about or work across Cultural Values, but it is not impossible. There are several complications associated with working with Cultural Values dimensions of conflict, as well as the implications they entail:
- The Cultural Values of a country are multilayered – what you see on the surface may mask deeper differences.
- Consequently, cultural generalizations do not provide a complete picture, and there is no substitute for building relationships and sharing experiences, allowing one to become more intimately acquainted with others over time.
- The Cultural Values landscape is constantly in flux, as conditions change, cultural groups adapt in unpredictable and dynamic ways.
- Thus, it is impossible to formulate a comprehensive description of any particular group. It is essential to consider the dimensions of time, context, and individual differences when attempting to understand a group.
- It is important to realize that culture is elastic – a group’s cultural norms cannot predict the behavior of its members, who may not conform to those norms for a number of reasons, whether they are individual or contextual.
- Consequently, taxonomies (e.g. “Italians think this way,” or “Buddhists prefer that”) are of limited use and are susceptible to error if they are not verified by experience.
- It is difficult to access these symbolic levels since they are largely outside our awareness, and culture influences identities and meaning-making largely below the surface.
- Thus, it is beneficial to learn about the cultural dimensions of those involved in a conflict using a variety of means, especially indirect methods, such as stories, metaphors, and rituals.
Depending on the context, cultural influences and identities become more important. It is possible for an aspect of cultural identity to become relatively more important than other aspects of cultural identity, and this fixed, narrow identity may become the target for stereotyping, negative projection, and conflict when it is threatened or misunderstood. Conflicts that are intractable frequently present themselves in this manner.
It is therefore important that people in conflict have interactive experiences that allow them to see each other as broadly as possible, experiences that facilitate the recognition of both shared and different identities.
Considering that culture is closely associated with our identities (who we believe we are) and the ways in which we make meaning (what is important to us and how), it is always a factor in conflicts. As a result of cultural awareness, we apply the Platinum Rule in place of the Golden Rule. According to the Platinum Rule, rather than the maxim “Do unto others as you would wish to be treated,” one should “do unto others as they would wish to be treated.”
Connections between culture and conflict
Conflicts arise because of human relationships, which are shaped by cultures. Conflict is framed, named, blamed, and tamed differently based on culture. It is a cultural question of whether or not there is a conflict at all. An elderly Chinese man interviewed in Canada indicated that he had not experienced any conflict in the previous 40 years. The cultural preference for harmony over conflict, influenced by his Confucian upbringing, may be one of the reasons for his denial. Identifying some of our interactions as conflicts and breaking them down into smaller components is a distinctly Western approach that may conceal or obscure other aspects of our interactions. Conflict always involves culture, whether it plays a central role or influences it subtly and gently. It is always the case that any conflict that touches us where it matters, where we make meaning and hold our identities, has a cultural component. Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Indian-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir are not only about territorial, boundary, and sovereignty issues, but also about the recognition, representation, and legitimization of different identities, ways of being, and making sense. Intractable conflicts are not just about territorial, boundary, and sovereignty issues. Generational culture shapes conflict between teenagers and their parents, while gender culture shapes conflict between spouses and partners. Conflicts between co-workers arising from different disciplinary cultures often lead to strained or inaccurate communication as well as stressed relationships in organizations. There is always culture permeating conflict, sometimes pushing forth with intensity and sometimes quietly snaking along, hardly announcing its presence until surprised individuals nearly stumble upon it.
Conflict is inextricably linked to culture, even if it does not cause it. Culture always influences perceptions, attitudes, behavior, and outcomes when differences arise in families, organizations, or communities. The content of the messages we receive from our cultural groups is less likely to be understood when they form a large majority in our community or nation. We are only conscious of the effects of cultures that are different from our own, focusing on behavior we deem exotic or strange. Cultures shared by dominant groups often seem to be “natural,” “normal,” and “how things are done.”
Conflict resolution approaches may minimize cultural issues and influences, despite the fact that culture is intertwined with conflict. We must include culture in our analyses and interventions since it is like an iceberg – largely submerged. Without acknowledging icebergs, it is impossible to make informed decisions about them if we do not know their size or location. It is possible for all types of people to make more intentional, adaptive choices if we acknowledge the culture and bring cultural fluency to conflicts.
Conflict and Culture: How to Handle It
Given the importance of culture in conflicts, what should be done to ensure that it is considered and incorporated into response plans? The behavior of cultures may be compared to that of temperamental children: complex, elusive, and difficult to predict. As long as we do not gain a greater understanding of culture as an integral part of the conflict, we may end up entangled in its net of complexity, limited by our own cultural lenses. An essential tool for resolving multilayered, cultural conflicts is cultural fluency.
It is important to be familiar with cultures, their natures, how they work, and how they interact with relationships both in times of conflict and harmony. It is important to be aware of several aspects of culture in order to achieve cultural fluency, including
- The communication process,
- Conflict naming, framing, and taming techniques
- Meaning-making approaches,
- Roles and identities.
Below is a more detailed description of each of these aspects.
The communication process
In communication, we refer to different ways of relating to and interacting with others. On the topic of Communication, Culture, and Conflict, there are many variations on these starting points. A major difference relates to the classification of high-context and low-context communications devised by Edward T. Hall. Most of a message in high-context communication is conveyed by the context surrounding it rather than by explicit wording. Communication is shaped by the physical setting, the way things are said, and shared understandings. As a result of formalized and stylized rituals, ideas are telegraphed without being explicitly stated. Communication requires nonverbal cues and signals in order to be understood. When verbal expressions are not present, or sometimes in addition to them, the context is trusted to communicate. Since high-context communication is less direct than low-context communication, it may help save face, but it may also increase the possibility of miscommunication since much of the intended message is not expressed.
The goal of low-context communication is to communicate directly instead of relying on the context to do so. As a result, verbal communication tends to be specific and literal, and less is conveyed through implied, indirect signals. Communication that takes place in a low context tends to be more confrontational than communication that takes place in a high context, and low-context communicators have a tendency to say what they mean and mean what they say. Low-context communication may help prevent misunderstandings, but it can also escalate conflict due to its confrontational nature. Communication occurs along a continuum between high context and low context. They can be more or less explicit and direct depending on the type of relationship, the context, and the purpose of the communication. Close relationships are often characterized by communication shorthand, which obscures communication to outsiders but makes it perfectly clear to the parties involved. People may choose low-context communication when interacting with strangers.
There is a distinction between low-context and high-context communication, which refers not only to individual communication strategies but also to the understanding of cultural groups. It is generally accepted that Western cultures tend to gravitate toward low-context communication starting points, whereas Eastern and Southern cultures tend to have high-context communication starting points. There are significant differences among these vast categories as well as many variations within them. In situations involving high-context communication, it is useful to pay particular attention to nonverbal cues and the behavior of others who may know more about the unstated rules that govern communication. It is likely to be expected that directness will be expected where low-context communication is the norm.
Communication varies in many other ways across cultures. Communication, Culture, and Conflict explore high- and low-context communication as well as several other dimensions.
Naming, framing, and taming methods
Different cultures have different ways of naming, framing, and taming conflict. There is no universal agreement on what constitutes a conflict, as illustrated by the example of the elderly Chinese interviewee. An emotional exchange between family members may seem threatening to those accustomed to calm, subdued discussions. It is possible that the family members themselves view the exchange as a normal and desirable way for them to air their differing opinions. There are also different interpretations of intractable conflicts. Do you consider an event to be a skirmish, a provocation, an escalation, or a mere trifle, barely worth noting? The answer depends on the perspective, context, and how identity is related to the situation. In the same way that there is no universal definition of a conflict or how events in interaction should be framed, there are also many different ways to think about taming it. Is it necessary for those involved to meet face-to-face and share their perspectives and stories with or without the assistance of an outside mediator? Could a trusted friend be able to help smooth the waters by speaking with each of those involved? The third-party should be known to the parties or should he or she be a stranger to them?
According to John Paul Lederach, in Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures, a formal mediator and a traditional elder play major roles in conflict transformation in both U.S. and Somali settings. The formal mediator is usually unknown to the parties involved, and he or she attempts to act without favoritism or investment in the outcome of the dispute. Elders are revered for their local knowledge and relationships and are relied upon for advice and direction, as well as their ability to facilitate communication between parties. In a variety of cultural contexts, insider partials (those known to the parties and familiar with the background of the situation and the webs of relationships) and outsider neutrals (those unknown to the parties who do not have any stake in the outcome or continued relationship with the parties) are used. Traditional, high-context settings tend to favor insider partials, while low-context settings tend to favor outside neutrals.
There are a number of ways in which taming conflict differs across cultures. According to their cultural understanding of what is required, third parties may use a variety of strategies with quite different goals. There is the possibility that parties’ expectations of how conflict should be resolved may differ in multicultural settings, which may further escalate an existing conflict.
Making meaning through different approaches
Cultures also differ in their approaches to meaning-making. According to Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars, people are capable of making sense of their lives from a variety of perspectives, including:
- Those who are universalist (prefer rules, laws, and generalizations) and those who are particularist (prefer exceptions, relations, and contextual evaluation)
- A combination of specificity (a preference for explicit definitions, the breakdown of wholes into parts, and the measurement of results) and diffuseness (a preference for patterns, the big picture, and the process over the outcome).
- There is an inner direction (which sees virtue in individuals who strive to realize their conscious purpose) and an outer direction (which sees virtue in natural rhythms, nature, beauty, and interpersonal relationships external to each individual).
- The concepts of synchronous time (cyclical and spiraling) and sequential time (linear and unidirectional) are used.
- Conflict is more likely to occur and escalate when we do not take into account that others may have quite different starting points. While the starting points themselves are neutral, negative motives can easily be attributed to someone who begins from a different point on the continuum.
As an example, when First Nations people sit down with government representatives in Canada or Australia to negotiate land claims, they may have different ideas about time that make it difficult to establish rapport and progress. According to First Nations beliefs, time stretches forward and backward, binding them in a relationship with seven generations on both sides. The choices and actions they make today will have an impact on future generations. When government negotiators are accustomed to Western European concepts of time, they may find the telling of historical tales and the consideration of projections generations into the future tedious and irrelevant unless they are aware of the variations in the way First Nations people view time. There is no doubt that this example relies on generalizations that may or may not be applicable to a given situation. Throughout Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and elsewhere, there are many different types of Aboriginal people. As a result, each culture has a unique relationship to time, different ideas about negotiation, and a distinct identity. There may also be a range of ethnocultural identities among government negotiators, and they may not fit into the stereotypical image of a woman or man in a hurry, with a measured, pressured approach to the task at hand.
It is also possible to draw examples from the other three dimensions identified by Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars. Should international standards and interveners be consulted when an intractable conflict has persisted for years or even generations? International intervention and the setting of international standards are more likely to be preferred by those who advocate a universalist starting point. Individuals will be more comfortable with a tailored, home-grown approach as opposed to general rules that may or may not suit their circumstances.
It is also common for specificity and diffuseness to lead to conflict and conflict escalation in many instances. It is possible that individuals who speak in specifics, seeking practical solutions to challenges that can be implemented and measured, may find those who speak in terms of process, feelings, and the big picture to be obstructive and frustrating. Those whose starting points are diffuse will be more likely to detect the flaw in the sum that is not easy to detect by looking at the component parts, as well as the context within which the specific ideas need to be placed.
Inner-directed individuals tend to believe they have the power to affect change, believing that they are “the masters of their fate, the captains of their souls.” They tend to place a greater emphasis on the product than the process. Imagining their frustration when confronted with people who are oriented towards the outside, who are concerned with nurturing relationships, living in harmony with nature, going with the flow, and paying attention to processes rather than products. Neither of the above sets of starting points is right or wrong; they are merely different. It is helpful to focus on the process, but not if it completely ignores outcomes. In addition to focusing on outcomes, it is also important to monitor the tone and direction of the process. As a result of cultural fluency, one is aware of different starting points, able to communicate in both dialects, and able to translate between them when they are causing conflict. Human relations are not explained by these continua in a general sense, nor are they absolute. There may be clues to what may be happening when people have been in conflict for a long period of time. In order to preserve our sense of self and relate to our purpose, we are meaning-making creatures, telling stories and creating understandings. By realizing this, we can examine how those in conflict make sense of their world and develop ways to assist them in making their meaning-making processes and conclusions more apparent to one another.
A means of accomplishing this is through storytelling and the creation of shared stories, stories that are co-constructed in order to accommodate multiple points of view within them. Conflicting individuals often tell stories that appear to contradict each other. For a time, narrative conflict-resolution approaches allow them to put truth and being right on hold and instead turn their attention to stories in which they can see themselves from both perspectives.
Metaphors can also be used to explore meaning-making. There is a great deal of information conveyed in shorthand through metaphors, which are compact, tightly packaged word pictures. As an example, one side may discuss how a conflict began, stating that it was buried in the mists of time before boundaries, roads, and written laws existed. It is possible that the other party views it as an offshoot of a vexatious lawsuit that was initiated in 1946. Both are correct — the issue may well have deep roots, and the lawsuit was surely part of the process of resolving it. The more diffuse starting point wrapped up in the mists of time meets the more specific starting point connected to a specific legal action as the two sides discuss their metaphors. They learn more about each other’s roles and identities as they discuss each other in context.
Roles and identities
The concept of identity and role refers to a person’s conception of himself or herself. Is there a separate entity within me that is autonomous, a free agent, and ultimately responsible for myself? Do I consider my choices and actions from the standpoint of how the group will perceive and be affected by them, or am I first and foremost a member of a group? The majority of individuals who perceive themselves as separate individuals come from a group of societies anthropologists refer to as individualists. It is common for individuals who place a high value on group loyalty to come from societies that anthropologists refer to as collectivist or communitarian in nature.
The following values tend to be privileged in collectivist settings:
- Collaborative efforts
- Respect and deference for elders (filial piety)
- Taking part in shared progress
- The group’s reputation
- An interdependent society
The following values tend to be privileged in individualist settings:
- A competitive environment
- Achievements of individuals
- Growth and fulfillment on a personal level
- Being self-sufficient
Conflicts Cultural Values may escalate when individualist and communitarian starting points influence the participants on either side. Individualists may have no problem with “no holds barred” confrontation, while communitarians may hesitate to act in unseemly ways in order to avoid discrediting their group. When communitarians indicate that they must take their understandings back to a larger public or group in order to reach an agreement, individuals may feel betrayed. It is important to remember that most people are neither purely individualists nor purely communitarians, as described in other patterns. Individuals tend to have individualistic or communitarian starting points, depending on their upbringing, experiences, and circumstances.
Since culture is always a factor in conflict resolution, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. In order to effectively intervene in conflicts or simply to function better in one’s own life and circumstances, Cultural Values fluency is a core competency. The goal of cultural fluency is to recognize and act respectfully based on the understanding that communication styles, methods of naming, framing, and resolving conflict, approaches to meaning-making, identities, and roles are different across cultures.