In the field of conflict management, cross-cultural issues have become a major challenge especially with the rise in concepts and practices such as management diversity, cultural competence, tolerance, acceptance and mainstreaming.
With the advent of globalization as well, where the layman’s adage of the ‘world is getting smaller’ would translate into ‘the barriers are being broken’, many groups and individuals come into contact with other people, who often do not share the same values, beliefs, experiences and perceptions. Social settings are then created wherein these diverse values, beliefs, experiences and perceptions are made to contend with each other for control and dominance.
At times, the parties involved in this contention would adapt styles and strategies that would shape future relationships with others, thus stereotypes are born. Other times, these styles and strategies form bases for understanding cultures across the world. It must be seen that though the world is indeed ‘getting smaller’ and the barriers are being ‘broken’, it does not necessarily follow that people’s, countries’ and groups’ nature are being changed as drastically as the smallness of the world and the absence of barriers. Each group creates its own niche and struggles to preserve the identity that was once unknown to the world.
Conflict in relation to the opening world and cultural systems is then thought to be common and a sign of how diverse the world is. At the surface, cultural systems would refer to the different nationalities that occupy the earth and thus conflict would arise from the differences in these cultures.
However, the author believes that nationalities are not the only dimension to cultural systems and conflict. Examining the meaning of culture would then be the primary task of this essay and later, to relate the meaning of culture to how conflict arises, conflict is handled, enacted and mediated may provide insight into a wider perception of conflict management and the implications of culture for conflict practitioners.
It is more imperative in today’s modern times to understand culture and what forms it may take within conflicts and social interactions. Culture cannot merely be understood as beliefs and practices, but also as perceptions, ways of life and forms of control and negotiation as well. Conflict is seen to arise not only from differences but commonalities as well, wherein the level of individual groups as sources of cultural conflict are abolished and cross-cultural conflict issues are seen to be produced not only on the dimension of levels, but also on the dimension of perceptions and practices.
Once the meaning and implication of addressing the issue of cultures within conflicts is established, possible paradigms, techniques, styles and strategies will be discussed. The holistic implication of culture within the context of conflict will provide the basis for understanding how each conflict is cultural and that cross-cultural issues are universal issues in a modern setting such as ours.
Mediation techniques, which add another dimension to the cultural aspect of every conflict will be discussed as well, wherein paradigms for understanding the role of mediation and mediators will be examined and described in order to provide a picture of mediation using and within different cultures.
Mediation and mediators would imply the introduction of new cultures and perceptions into the conflict through the mediator himself. The holistic nature of culture and how it encompasses every aspect of conflict and social interactions provides a basis for deeper understanding and a more in-depth look at how large a role and how definite a determinant culture is not only on the conflict itself but between the parties themselves as well.
Understanding cross-cultural issues in conflict management may well be grounded not only in examining the parties involved but the nature and premises of conflict as well.
Before tackling the discourse of conflict in the context of cross-cultural issues, culture itself must be examined and the various concepts it presents in order to understand how conflicts are affected by cultural considerations.
Various literature and definitions of culture are present, thus defining culture itself is problematic. However, a common treatment of the definition of culture is that it is comprised of various practices, beliefs, ways of life and values that are shared within a certain society.
Culture represents the combined experiences of a group of individuals that are bound together by common characteristics. These characteristics are not limited to the inhabitants of a geographic location. Though this is more often the case in defining the parameters of a culture, it must be noted that different groups that cohere based on different criteria are present and have as much their own culture as those who are bound together by a geographic location.
Distinctions of Culture
A geographic community such as an African tribe would no doubt have its own culture, wherein their customs and traditions would have distinct features and would surely be an object of fascination for Western society. Western society itself is a geographic community with their own culture, and in the case of reality, the dominant culture. Discussion on dominant and weaker cultures will be put into context later in the essay.
However, geography and physical location is not the only bases for the coherence of a group of individuals. Age, gender, class, physical attributes and other dimensions may provide the characteristics to distinguish certain cultures from other.
Age would represent the difference in cultures between generations. No doubt that youth and children would have a different culture than that of young professionals and middle-aged people. Senior citizens would also have a culture completely different from the groups previously mentioned. The youth would be preoccupied with interests wholly different than the senior citizens, with a different set of values and practices from the latter.
Gender provides a cross-cutting dimension for culture, wherein it cuts across various distinctions and dimensions. Being a woman comes with specific values, practices, beliefs and traditions that are unique to women and different to men. Also, gender would cut across various other dimensions, wherein there are women from different groups that share the same practices and beliefs with all women, but would differ in age group and class.
Traditions, beliefs and practices that are determined by a person’s gender provides a larger cultural distinction as everyone in the world no matter where they are would have his or her own gender identity which would produce certain types of behavior, expectations and practices. However, gender identities of women, men, gays and lesbians may differ across geographic communities as well and with age groups, where further distinctions may occur. Gender is then thought to be cross-cutting and affords many layers to cultural distinctions.
Class presents cultures that differ across social standing, where beliefs, practices, values and other cultural distinctions are based on a group’s economic status and standing. The upper class has their own culture, which is the dominant one as well, which affords them control over modes of production and resources.
The other groups who comprise the bourgeoisie, middle class, peasants and lower class have their own culture which is mostly characterized by their economic standing as well, where the middle class have relatively more power than the lower class and peasant class whose culture is characterized by poverty and hardship.
Religion also provides a venue for diverse cultures. Being a component of society, religion even at times shapes the perceptions of people as much as culture does. The inherent nature of religion as a set of beliefs that produce practices, rituals and values would offer much room for cultural distinction. Catholics and Muslims have different cultures, as well as atheists, pagans and those who believe in the power of nature. All these groups provide venues for cultures to flourish, be created and be reinforced.
Dominance and Subordination
The various cultures and groups presented above imply the presence of many lines of distinction from which power, dominance, subordination and preference occur. Dominant groups in society exhibit traits and characteristics that are desired and considered ‘normal’ or ‘superior’ to others.
Such groups as the elite, who have control over resources and most of the wealth, present a group which is dominant, with a culture characterized by affluence and power. Because of this, the members of the elite are those who usually dictate the norms that are accepted, and dictate the conditions of lower, more subordinate groups.
Men, who compose their own group in terms of culture, are seen to be the dominant group and exercise this dominance over other gender-based groups such as women, gays and lesbians.
The contention of age and the youth with their parents show how the dominant group in this category is in relation to whoever is older. At times, though this is untrue when the elderly are afforded labels of senility and incapability to perform tasks previously easy to them in their early years. Thus the young, strong and sharp of mind brought about by age are the dominant group, and it is based on other considerations and beliefs as to what power and control, if any, are accorded to older groups.
Religious groups provide a starker image of dominance and subordination. Catholics and Muslims, who comprise majority of the world’s population, provide dominant groups depending on other factors. Depending on one’s geographic location, Catholics and Muslims are judged and differentiated which brings about dominance and subordination in an imbalance throughout the world. Other religions such as the Protestants and atheists, because they are lesser in number, are often thought of as deviations from the norm, but again within the context of their other geographic considerations.
It may be seen that within various distinctions, there are dominant and subordinate groups. Those who are dominant are able to wield power in terms not only of concrete outcomes and conditions, but the perceptions of people as well.
Implications for the presence of many groups show that a person may belong to various groups. One may be a woman from elite society in a Western country. This would imply that she would be member of various dominant groups, except for hose which are gender-based. She will be accorded wealth, distinction and would have values that are congruent to her dominant status. However, she would not have power in the realm of gender, where she may be subject to subordination to her husband and father, and be victim to gender-based violence.
On the other side of the spectrum could be a woman who belongs to the lower class from a Middle Eastern community. This woman could be experiencing the same gender bias and gender-based violence that the previously-mentioned Western woman could be experiencing, but she has to deal with lack of resources and living in a country where she does not have any distinction.
Thus cultures within groups can be seen as overlapping when it comes to describing the members of the groups. One may be a member of one group and be dominant in that aspect or group, but be subordinate and suffer from lower status in others. The dominant and lower groups have their own cultures and practices which further adds layers to an individual who can be member of several groups.
With the presence of so many distinctions, groups and lines of difference, how can one define a single culture and the differences it has? When so many people are members of different groups and bring to the table so many different perceptions brought out from their memberships and experiences, how can one try to understand what is cultural and what is cross-cultural?
Looking at the base definitions and implications of defining culture and the distinctions it creates provides basis for introducing the concept of conflict between cultures and groups. But this would then give a problematic view wherein even those within the same view would enact conflict because of other differences in aggregate groups.
This is in fact, true and conflict may be found within groups of the same members and between individuals, communities and even whole cultures.
Conflict, according to Folger (2001) is the “interaction among parties who are interdependent and who believe that the other parties in the conflict intend to prevent them from achieving their goals or having their needs met.”
Conflicts can be driven by various factors which include perceptions, values, beliefs and not merely objective situations and incidents (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001).
Conflicts can occur at various levels within a relationships, groups and communities. Of concern within the arena of business and organizations are interpersonal conflicts, which occur in interpersonal relationships, small groups and intergroup settings (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001). Within communities and larger scales, intergroup conflicts occur as well which are more applicable with conflicts between nations, tribes and peoples.
Generally, the levels of conflict whether in small or large groups, in whatever setting, is usually distinguished by the number of individuals involved in such conflict and the type of interdependence and connection that these individuals have with one another.
Interaction is the key in understanding conflict as conflict cannot be borne if there was no form of interaction that occurred between parties and individuals (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001).
Interaction among parties and individuals produce conflict and can be reflected in the moves and the countermoves of the parties involved. The events of the conflict unfold as the parties enact various moves to present and take their stands on the basis of their interests.
This may imply that some conflicts are wholly one-sided with one party holding all the power and imposing such on the weaker party, who, in turn, has different sentiments and interests but is ‘helpless’ to the power wielded by the stronger groups. This is true but the events of the conflict occur because of each party’s moves and countermoves, and though the weaker party appears not to move, its submission is in itself the move this party plays and the conflict that arises has its own style and characteristics.
This means that no conflict is entirely one-sided in such that control completely resides in one party. Both parties have some form of control over how the conflict will unfold over the course of its life.
Conflict interaction may usually be described as a repeating spiral, wherein behavior is reinforced between parties wherein the tactics of one party reinforces the tactics of the other party where the two parties respond similarly to the tactics of the other (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001). An example of this spiral phenomenon is when one party enacts competition tactics and competitive behavior against the other party.
The other party, in turn would respond with similar tactics and behavior, meaning behaving competitively as well. As the conflict unfolds, the behavior of one party is met by the other similarly, and the events become a repeating spiral.
Influencing conflict interaction and the various events that shape a conflict are major factors. These factors may be considered dynamics in how conflicts unfold and the nature of each factor shall give characteristics and traits unique to each conflict. The factors are (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001):
b. Face-saving concerns
d. Strategies and tactics
The element of power in a conflict greatly determines the actions of each party. What
power one party wields determines especially at the beginning what one party is able to do and not, and usually sets the limitation for the actions of parties. However, in some cases, especially in highly destructive conflicts, power can be grabbed, transformed and transferred as through the actions of the participants.
Face-saving concerns as well play a major role in conflict interaction. The concepts of shame, pride and dignity are always in play in whatever conflict, and both parties always wish to either keep these three intact or put themselves in a higher position than the other party, usually at the expense of the other party’s pride and dignity. Some would also say that techniques and strategies in handling conflicts would also stem from a party’s dignity and pride and that some strategies are ‘below’ them and to save face, these parties would not use certain strategies and techniques.
Climate is essentially the overall feel of the situation of the conflict for all the parties involved (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001). This factor occurs within and without the parties and greatly influences the perceptions of the parties about one another and the possible strategies and techniques that the parties expect others to do.
This factor is usually ‘felt’ by the members of the parties and would be used to determine the attitudes of the parties towards their own members and the members of the other party. This factor would entail looking at relationships between members, support and concern present, the identities of both parties, interdependence and other characteristics. There are simply too many considerations in this factor that the conflict determines what aspects of the climate are to be examined.
Predictions are usually shaped by the climate of the conflict (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001). This usually follows the repeating spiral phenomenon in conflict wherein the behavior of the participants predicts the behavior of others. In turn, groups predict the actions of the other groups in as much the same way, using the climate which they feel. These predictions are borne from the deeds and words that the parties witness and their own interpretations.
At the end of each conflict however, once the spiral has ended and the two parties are left to evaluate the outcome of their efforts in handling the conflict, different criteria may be used (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001):
a. Objective gains and losses
b. Participant satisfaction
c. Distributive justice
d. Procedural justice
The evaluation of gains and losses must be done through an objective manner wherein the parties determine what concrete headway and steps back were taken in the furthering of their interests. If their goals were not achieved, how far were they from achieving it? Did they go any farther from where they started? Did they even take steps back and lost headway in the reaching of their goals?
Once the conflict has subsided, how do the participants feel about the outcome and the events of the conflict? Were they satisfied? Do they feel that they had been cheated and left with an empty hand after the negotiations? Were their goals achieved and in what manner?
It is imperative that when one wishes to evaluate the outcome of a conflict, more than one criterion must be used to provide a larger picture for the participants to understand how the conflict unfolded and why the situation is as it is now that the conflict has ended.
As a major point of classification, conflicts can be divided into two kinds (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001):
a. Destructive modes
b. Productive modes
Both modes may be determined by the type of behavior that is enacted and the nature of interaction between the parties involved in the conflict. Also, goals may be a basis for determining whether a conflict is destructive or productive.
Destructive conflicts usually involve inflexible and adamant behavior by both parties wherein no one will accept any compromise and will always attempt in defeating the other party in their moves and tactics (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001).
Goals of parties within destructive conflicts are often found to be shifting away from achieving an acceptable outcome for both parties and would merely reduce it to defeating the other party involved in the conflict.
High competition may be seen in this type of conflict, but it must be noted that competition is not necessarily an undesired event. It just so happens that within destructive conflicts, competition is in great excesses and becomes the complete driving force of the conflict, where the desires and the interests of the parties may be completely forgotten and what remains is the desire to defeat the other party at any cost and with any other goal in mind.
As an opposite of destructive conflicts, productive conflicts exhibit flexible and accommodating behavior from both parties with an end goal clear in their minds. Mutually acceptable solutions are always considered and sought after in order for both parties’ interests to be fulfilled (Folger, Poole, & Sutman, 2001).
Though competition is widely the distinguishing characteristic of destructive conflicts, it may be found in productive conflicts as well, however, in productive conflicts this competition does not take over the overarching goal in mind of both parties for the interest of their group and is merely a tactic used to further their interests.
With all the considerations presented above when managing conflict, it is then imperative to conclude that conflicts are extremely complex in any form and on any scale. Even if the parties are only two people or two countries, both levels exhibit special characteristics, traits and natures that need to be grasped and understood for the conflict to be resolved.
There is no one single approach and surefire solution to all conflicts and effective conflict management and understanding conflict stems from one’s understanding of various considerations that differ for each conflict. The criteria presented above gives only a glimpse and effective conflict management can only occur in a parsimonious and judicious use of knowledge, tools of analysis and appropriate skills so as not to exhaust oneself, the participants and provide a conducive procedure to conflict resolution.
The issue of culture, however, provides a solid basis for understanding conflict and at the same time for producing conflict. Cultural differences and cross-cultural issues are both tools of analysis and points of contention. What one must understand is that cultures provide ways of understanding others and why they are involved in conflicts, even if the conflict stems from the culture itself.
CULTURE AND CONFLICT
Conflict management within the context of cross-cultural issues then presents us with a dilemma in resolving and understanding conflicts across cultures. Usually, the implication of the word ‘cross-cultural’ would mean themes of nations, belies and attitudes that differ across geographic locations. However, with the discussion presented above on the variety and complexity of culture, as well as the complexity of conflict, knowing where to begin and where to end would indeed prove very difficult.
An important consideration then is presented by Ross (1993) wherein understanding conflicts in the context of culture would be to “bridge the parties' differences in interests and consider disputants' deep hurts and the strong distrust of adversaries."
This would mean that conflict management would require one to understand differences, hurts and feelings of distrust. The differences mentioned are the cultural differences and the difference in interests of participants and how the other party always hurts the other no matter how productive the conflict is and thus strong feelings of distrust are borne. How can one do this?
The author proposes the use of culture as the basis for understanding. Though culture can be seen as beliefs, traditions, ways of life, customs and other societal components, culture may be understood as a lens or a tool for analysis in itself that will greatly help in understanding not only cross-cultural issues but any issue. Indeed, if the implications of this perception are further examined then any conflict is cross-cultural and that using a cultural lens in understanding any conflict is important.
Ross’ (1993) model of conflict gives importance to understanding structural interests and psychocultural elements in order to gain a better picture of conflicts. This would follow his earlier statement wherein differences in interests and deep hurts should be understood. What is important to keep in mind here is that these differences in interests and deep hurts stem from psychocultural elements that are inherent in both parties but unknown to the other, and usually, people analyze others’ situation using their own cultural lens when the indigenous lens of the other group should be used. Structures that shape cultures may be somewhat similar but across cultures differences arise.
Further, Ross (1993) posits that "addressing disputants' mutually hostile psychocultural interpretations is necessary in order to deal effectively with conflicts over divergent interests, particularly in bitter disputes."
A cultural lens produced from seeking to understand the other party’s culture may be used to understand the tactics, sentiments, feelings and interests that are in play during a conflict.
Applying Ross’ theories and statements to a wider cultural perspective would require one to understand the culture of the other party. Be it a geographic difference, an age difference, gender difference, racial or religious difference, each party has his or her own culture and to be able to resolve a conflict, both cultures must be understood. The psychocultural interpretations that occur in conflict are usually negative about the other party and are usually produced from inappropriate use of cultural lenses.
One example may be a dispute between a mother and her teenage boy. The mother would use the understanding and perspective (the lens) of a woman in her later years to understand the point of view of her son who is in high school. Certainly the mother has different values and opinions than her child borne from being part of an older culture and being female. This also happens in reverse with regards to her son, whose culture is mostly being involved with teenage concerns and that of a male’s.
Both of them would certainly not understand each other if they would use their own lenses to understand each other. One must be able to ‘put on’ or ‘look through’ the lens of the other party to come to understand why there is conflict, why there is a difference in interest, and why the other party is acting that way.
As such, the mother will understand that what her son holds in importance is friendship and freedom because of his age, while the son might understand that mother holds his welfare and safety above everything else as a mother. That way, deep hurts are avoided even if the contention is still present. Misinterpretations will less-likely occur as well, since both parties understand through using the cultural lenses of the other party and blame would not be thrown around.
This method of understanding conflict and conflict interaction may greatly help mediators and the participants in the conflict as well to arrive more productively at a solution. However, it must be noted that not all conflicts can be resolved easily and with both parties satisfied to the fullest. Using cultural lenses will help in the process of the conflict. These will help in assessing the climate, in the interpretation and prediction of actions and countermoves.
Ultimately, the issue of cross-cultural differences and issues is wider than initially perceived. There will always be cross-cultural differences in any conflict and this usually leads to many deep hurts and misinterpretations that may deteriorate the conflict into a more destructive type. Cultural lenses must be used to avoid these deep hurts and misinterpretations for smoother conflict management.
Folger, J., Poole, M., & Sutman, R. (2001). Working through Conflict. New York: Addison
Wesley Longman Inc.
Ross, M. (1993). Management of Conflict. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.