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Responses to Conflict in Individualistic and Collectivistic Societies

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Osman Senkaya

Cultural differences have a potential to trigger conflicts at all levels, and the response each society gives to these conflicts depend on what they hold most dear as a foundational norm: independent existence of individuals or social interdependence. This calls for awareness in differences and discussion to benefit from cultural diversity.

Michael was having a problem with his neighbor next door. He decided to seek advice from his coworkers on the issue. Paul suggested that he express the problem openly right away, and, if that wouldn’t help, to take the neighbor to the court. Akihiro, on the other hand, warned him not to get too serious, and recommended him to write a letter which talks about their good memories in the past and how pleasant their neighborhood was. The backup plan in this case would be to invite a mutually respected neighbor of theirs to mediate the situation.
Of course, Michael has many other options to address the given problem. Yet, it is interesting to note the differences between the suggestions of the two coworkers. One party is focused on the issue per se and pursues a direct approach; whereas the other is concerned about the relationship and follows indirect/accommodating means to handle the situation. This article is intended to provide a better understanding of these two main approaches in conflicting situations. Since the responses to unease are generally situational, we may not judge whether any of the resolution efforts are good or bad, but rather, look closely on their rationale respectively.

Cultures differ on various aspects of life. Naturally, the approach of their members to conflict will also vary depending on the value they place on issues of interest and dominant cultural characteristics. A close examination of these features in a given society will give an idea on how its members would respond to conflicting situations in general. Given the growing interconnectedness of societies today, such knowledge of cultural tendencies might help in the development of strategies for conflict resolution and prevention.

Societies that promote independent existence of individuals are referred to as individualistic, and those which assume a great deal of social interdependence are grouped as collectivistic cultures.1 Prior to discussing responses to conflict in these two types of cultures, it may be better to highlight some examples of their interpretations which will provide hints about their foundational norms.

He who hesitates is lost. (American expression)
Strike while the iron is hot. (American expression)
More haste, less speed. (Chinese expression)
A deliberate inaction is better than a blind action. (Chinese expression)

Different cultures may have different viewpoints about the same issue. This affects the responses of their members and the methods they favor in various situations. Existing theories in social sciences, which generally reflect social values of individualism and autonomy, may be inadequate in societies that do not share the same values and foundational norms, and vice versa. Such a cross-cultural analysis requires an understanding of the prevalent cultural values and norms in a given society.1 These shared values, through which cultures develop and continue, are communicated in a variety of ways. One technique that commonly appears is the use of proverbs or sayings, and such quotes throughout the commentary will provide a general idea about some differing characteristics of these two cultural approaches. 

Rather than criticizing or promoting any specific cultural aspect, this piece aims to discuss another dimension of multicultural approach to serve to break the stereotyped images (if any) about different cultures, and to help accept everybody as they are in a world of cultural diversity. Once we have a broad picture, we will further look into how interpersonal conflict is handled, and conclude with some overarching suggestions to foster mutual understanding in cases of unease.

Two’s company, but three’s a crowd. (American expression)
If you congregate, you live. If you scatter, you die. (Korean proverb)
One who leaves the herd, gets snatched by the wolf. (Turkish proverb)
One palm makes no applause. (Chinese proverb)

Two widely held worldviews have become evident in the cross-cultural literature as variables on which most cultures vary: individualism which objectifies the self, and collectivism which submerges the self to emphasize the group. A middle course in the de bate between those who claim the primacy of society and those who emphasize the primal significance of the individual would state that there is no society without an individual; and also that no individual can survive without society.2 These concepts do not necessarily form opposite poles and may coexist due to the enormous intercultural mix, yet one approach may still have dominance to the other in a given culture.3

“The freedom to be an individual is the essence of America.” (Marilyn vos Savant)
“It is hard to be an individual in Japan.” (Haruki Murakami)

In individualistic societies, a person is an autonomous entity defined by a somewhat distinctive set of attributes, qualities, or processes; and these internal attributes determine the behavior. Yet, in collectivistic societies, a person is an interdependent entity who is part of the encompassing social relationships. This is not to say that a person in such a society lacks unique attributes, but rather that these are not primary forces that guide the behavior. In such societies, behavior is a consequence of being responsive to others and origins of behaviors are relationships and social harmony.3

He who converses not knows nothing. (English proverb)
He, who knows, does not speak. He, who speaks, does not know. (Lao Tzu)

In Western cultures, a highly verbal individual is perceived more positively, whereas in Eastern cultures perceptions for highly verbal individuals may not be that positive. Traditionally, communication apprehension has been attributed to a weak sense of identity and is viewed as a deficiency; but on the contrary, this reticence may be due to politeness or a tendency to preserve harmony in collectivistic cultures, depending on the social context.

Stand up for your own rights. (American expression)
Unless you blow your own horn, who will? (American expression)
Once you preach, the point is gone. (Zen phrase)
Mature rice plants bow down lower. (Korean expression)

According to individualistic point of view, communicators can get things done by being assertive. On the other hand, from the collectivistic standpoint, people are expected to preserve group identity and may be discouraged from asserting themselves as individuals. Therefore, it will not be a true assumption to attribute this lack of assertiveness to some negative traits such as low self-esteem, shyness, disinterest, or ignorance.3

Cultural dimensions of conflict resolution
“The practice of peace and reconciliation is one of the most vital and artistic of human actions.” (Nhat Hanh)
Keeping all the above examples in mind, now let’s briefly compare and contrast responses to conflict in individualistic and collectivistic societies:
Since individuals’ self-articulated interests are of utmost importance, individualistic perspective frames conflict as the divergence of interests or issues, which limits the focus of solution efforts solely to reconciling the differences in interests between parties. Yet in collectivistic cultures, social harmony is a critical aspiration and community involvement is likely even in interpersonal matters. Then, a deeper and wider analysis that will address the concerns of both types of approaches should better view conflict as a situation and place the situation to the heart of any resolution endeavor.1
“He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense.” (Joseph Conrad)
The one who raises his/her voice has already lost. (Japanese proverb)
Members of individualistic cultures tend to prefer direct/dominating/prompt communication styles, since they deem open discussion as the best way to deal with their interpersonal problems. On the other hand, individuals in interdependent societies are less likely to “express negative emotions (such as anger) to confront each other, and to use verbal aggressiveness and open discussion in conflict situations. They may avoid reactions to their relational problems that can potentially cause further conflict”. Among them, the stress is not so much upon the individual and his/her interests, but on the maintenance of the collectivity and the continuation of harmonious relationships; conflict is viewed as damaging to social fabric and relational harmony, so it should be avoided as much as possible. This naturally leads to the adoption of high compromising and avoiding behaviors and a relatively low preference for competing and assertive postures which emphasize the value they place on maintaining social harmony rather than personal interests in conflict interactions.3
“Peace is not absence of conflict; it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” (Ronald Reagan)
There is a natural tendency to avoid conflicts as much as possible. While it is a major strategy to preserve harmonious relationships in Eastern cultures, Western societies may view accommodation efforts as giving up critical values and personal rights. Furthermore, according to the Western approach, people will prefer to avoid conflict only if their stake in an issue is not high enough to get involved, whereas collectivist cultures actually utilize it as a social remedy.3
In collectivistic societies, “understanding is seen not as the result of putting meaning into words, but rather as the greater understanding of shared perspective, expectations, and intimacy”, and avoidance is utilized as a strategy to handle the conflict. Besides expressing the discomfort indirectly/nonverbally in a polite and educating way, non-confrontational communication modes in problematic situations include, but are not limited to: “(a) the use of management to prevent a conflict before it happens, (b) expression of conflict emotions like anger or frustration by non-communication, such as ignorance or silence, (c) pretense of being harmonious in peoples’ presence, even though parties are actually avoiding each other, (d) management of conflict using a third party, (e) tendency of directing accusations against oneself.”3
Cultural differences in third party intervention
“The Believers are but brothers; so make peace and reconciliation between your brothers… ” 4
How, when, and why a third party interferes has been the central focus of conflict resolution studies. Models on interpersonal conflict that assume a great deal of individual autonomy and privacy in interpersonal matters hardly speak about engaging one’s social network into a conflict, however interpersonal conflict intervention in a collectivistic setting will not take place only between contending individuals and the intervener, but is likely to engage other entities (e.g. extended family members) almost in any given conflict. This involvement of others, with the purpose of securing, improving or sustaining a resolution, can be added strength for conflict intervention and resolution.1
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” (Paulo Freire)
Western literature on interpersonal conflict intervention generally undermines the adjustment of the involvement style depending on the stage of the disagreement. However in collectivistic societies, “third parties are expected to function in a reconciliatory mode, unless clear injustice or deviance takes place. In this case, third parties should get actively involved in restoring justice and eliminating deviance before returning to the reconciliatory role.” Consultation may be utilized “when relationship issues (perception and attitudes) are not suitable for mediation, and to help parties clarify their underlying needs (security, or identity for example) and interests tied to such needs. Mediation, on the other hand, aims at negotiating certain substantive issues, based on a clear understanding of relationship issues and parties’ own needs and interests.” 1
Adhering to the common good while not favoring any of the parties has good intentions, yet the mediator may face difficulties in modern diverse societies, where notions of common good may be too diverse and vague; focus being on the individual. Material resources are often the codes used, thus legal procedures are vital parts of the resolution in these societies, and mediators are expected to be professionals who are knowledgeable of legal procedures. Thus, actions in a resolution process are task-oriented. Conversely in collectivistic societies, where the main focus is on social harmony and social norms/values form the basis of a solution, mediators are generally seniors (in terms of age or hierarchy) who are knowledgeable of cultural norms. Some codes mainly used by interveners in these cultures include honor, dignity, unity, future of the next generations, religious values, and tradition of forgiveness.1, 5 
Speaking of religion and its role in conflict, one’s voluntary sacrifice from his/her rights in some conflicting situations, repelling evil with what is better,6 and forgiveness has been encouraged for thousands of years by major world religions.7 “Adherents of these religions have claimed that forgiveness yields numerous emotional and spiritual benefits, and can dramatically transform one’s life.”8 Hence, it may be useful to explore their resources, which are rich with conflict intervention principles, values and models, in a way that would prepare them for contemporary practice. For instance, it is stated that reconciling a dispute between two parties is a charity,9 and that “kind words and forgiving of faults are better than charity followed by injury.” 10
The most beneficial approach for the involved parties in a conflict situation would be an attempt to address fully the concerns of both parties and to find mutually satisfactory solutions to the cause of the conflict. This collaborative approach is of utmost importance and most viable, particularly when the issues are critical and maintaining an ongoing relationship is important. For an effective assistance, third parties involved in mediation processes should carefully study the needs and values of contending parties and have cultural awareness in order to provide mutually satisfactory resolution options regardless of the society they operate. 
Considering that disagreements could be resolved much easily when parties are aware of corresponding needs/values and interests/concerns, getting to know one another would be an important basis for any resolution endeavor. Therefore, the more we exchange ideas without prejudice, the more we’ll understand each other. Although some disagreements yield positive outcomes and new ideas, intense conflicts generally drain energy and resources. Hence, it is heartening to observe that peace studies such as conflict resolution are blossoming, despite some scholars expecting a “clash of civilizations” and some claiming that we are at the “end of history.” Contrary to the arguments that define life as a series of struggles for limited resources, this relatively new field of social sciences will help humanity make the best out of its potential and reach a better state of living. Comprehensive resolutions which are globally applicable to disagreements in-between individuals, organizations, or nations overall, call for good deeds, positive motives, and pure intentions without self-interest. Tolerance, forgiveness, altruism, compassion, submission to ethical/moral codes, fairness, openness of hearts and minds, and welcoming people as they encompass some of the universal means to cure conflicts at various levels. 
References
1. Abdalla, Amr. 2000. “Principles of Islamic Interpersonal Conflict Intervention: A Search within Islam and Western Literature.” Journal of Law & Religion 15, no. 1. 151-184.
2. Nasr, Seyyed H. 2002. The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity. San Francisco: HarperCollins.
3. Kim, Min-Sun. 2002. Non-Western Perspectives on Human Communication: Implications for Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, Cal.: Sage Publications.
4. Qur’an, 49:10.
5. Abu-Nimer, Mohammed. 1996. “Conflict Resolution in an Islamic Context: Some Conceptual Questions.” Peace and Change 21, no. 1. 22-40.
6. Qur’an, 41:34.
7. For some of the Qur’anic verses on interpersonal forgiveness and reconciliation not mentioned in the text, the reader may refer to 2:280; 3:134, 4:128, 135, 149; 24:22; 25:63; and 42:37, 40, 43.
8. McCullough, Michael E., Kenneth I. Pargament, and Carl E. Thoresen. 2000. Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: The Guilford Press.
9. Bukhari, Sulh, 11; Muslim, Zakat, 52.
10. Qur’an, 2:263.



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