Cultural Literacy and Conflict
Culture is multi-layered: what you see externally may mask significant differences residing just below the surface. In terms of communication, not only is language a potential barrier but so too are the distinctions between high-context and low-context, collectivistic or individualistic, and/or low and high-power distance cultures. In particular, high-context and low-context cultures are driven by their history. For example, Japan is an island that shares thousands of years of history, allowing its citizens to become incredibly skilled at picking up contextual messages, whereas the United States, with its scant hundreds of years of history and influx of different cultures must use a more implicit form of communication to avoid confusion (Meyer, 2014). This, in and of itself, is rife with possibilities for miscommunication and ultimately conflict. When the other cultural differences are added in, it is clear how important cultural competence is to mitigate unhealthy conflict.
Being culturally competent and having not only an awareness but also an understanding of these differences is essential to successful communication. Engaging in “cultural fluency” means having a familiarity with cultures: “their natures, how they work, and how they intertwine with our relationships in times of conflict and harmony” (LeBaron, 2003). A part of this awareness allows a person to enlist appropriate confrontation strategies.
As with the scales of power distance, high and low context, and collectivistic and individualist cultures, there are scales to how confrontational a culture may or may not be inclined. On this scale the United States and France are more comfortable with conflict than is Japan and Thailand (Meyer, 2014). Here is an example of these cultural differences can mitigated in small changes in communication. Say you have a coworker who is from a high-context, collectivistic culture that is adverse to confrontation. When you have an issue or something that is controversial to discuss, you might send a carefully-worded email. This gives her time to reflect, allows her to save face without an audience, and then resolve the challenges with minimal discomfort. Although she might be accustomed to the implicit communication of United States culture, you might find she responds more honestly in an email conversation that is devoid of so many cultural landmines.
Meyer, E. (2014) The Culture Map: breaking through the invisible boundaries of global business. PublicAffairs. PA
LeBaron, M. (2003) Culture and Conflict. Retreived from https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/culture_conflict