Conflict is pervasive and has been examined extensively in various relationships and communication contexts (Hocker & Wilmot 1991; Putnam & Poole 1987). Communication scholars, however, have only recently begun to investigate this phenomenon from a lifespan perspective, suggesting that communication among people at different ages deserves special attention. Nussbaum (1989) argued that people of different ages not only experience life events in unique historical contexts, but also develop different physical, cognitive, and psychological selves. In line with the life-span perspective, recent research on intergenerational communication in conflict situations has demonstrated several key factors influencing individuals’ conflict styles, including age, age stereotypes, and cultural values. From the life-span perspective, the focus of this article is to explore the nature of conflict, conflict styles, intergenerational conflict management, and how younger and older adults differ in their perceptions and attributions of conflict and conflict-management styles.
Conceptualizing Intergenerational Conflict and Management Styles
Putnam and Poole (1987) state that conflict is “the interaction of interdependent people who perceive opposition of goals, aims, and values, and who see the other party as potentially interfering with the realization of these goals” (p. 552). In a similar vein, Hocker and Wilmot (1991) define conflict as “an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals” (p. 21). Conflict can be functional and dysfunctional; its constructive functions are contingent upon appropriate management. Therefore, in the last few decades, scholars have sought to identify, conceptualize, and teach the preferred and most effective conflict styles in various relational and communication contexts.
Thomas and Kilmann (1974) identified five major conflict-management styles: competing, collaborating (or problem-solving), avoiding, compromising, and accommodating. These five styles have been applied, adapted, and validated in slightly different ways in research. Conceptually, the competing style focuses on the needs of the self over those of another by using an assertive communication style in an uncooperative manner to defend a personal position. The problem-solving style attempts to generate a plan of action in a cooperative manner that is mutually satisfying to all parties. The avoiding style has been identified with withdrawal and failure to take a position through an unassertive and uncooperative response with low concern for self and the other party. The compromising style emphasizes mutual concession-making by following the middle ground. The accommodating style is a self-sacrificing approach featuring the other person’s satisfaction through being unassertive and cooperative.
A few studies have provided justification for combining compromising and problemsolving (e.g., Cai & Fink 2002). The accommodating style specified in Thomas and Kilmann (1974) has been largely ignored. Recently, however, research has found that the accommodating style, which emphasizes relational harmony and not necessarily problem-solving, is a distinctive style. In addition, the four conflict styles of competing, avoiding, accommodating, and problem-solving are found to be applicable to intergenerational communication research (e.g., Zhang et al. 2005), which has been examined from interpersonal and intergroup perspectives.
Each individual’s communication behaviors are influenced by a personal identity, a social identity, and a cultural identity. While personal identity is composed of individuals’ unique characteristics (e.g., polite, honest, and hardworking), social identity develops as a consequence of membership in a particular group within one’s culture. Without denying the impact of one’s personal identity, the life-span perspective on intergenerational communication incorporates intergroup and intercultural theories to enhance our understanding of the particular ways in which people from different generations manage their interactions. Intergenerational conflict management thus refers to an ongoing communication process where younger and older adults negotiate and manage their interactions as individuals while also considering group differences.
Theoretical Frameworks and Intergenerational Conflict
Aside from the interpersonal conflict frameworks, several intergroup theories speak of the nature of conflict management in intergenerational relationships. Tajfel’s (1981) Social Identity Theory (SIT) maintains that human beings have an innate need to organize their social world into categories or groups (e.g., age groups) and to show positive ingroup distinctiveness in social comparisons in order to gain self-esteem. As a consequence of this categorization, individuals might ascribe to group traits, behave in stereotypical group ways, and show ingroup favoritism and outgroup prejudice and discrimination. Grounded in SIT, Howard Giles’s Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) examines how different motivational processes influence communication styles, as well as the attributions, evaluations, and intentions for future interaction that people make as a result. Guided by CAT, Ellen Ryan’s Communication Predicament of Aging (CPA) model was developed to explain roles of age stereotypes in intergenerational communication. In its simplest form, the CPA model outlines how young people’s speech accommodations based on age stereotypes may create a negative feedback cycle for older adults (Ryan et al. 1986).
Guided by these theoretical frameworks, research on intergenerational communication has revealed unsatisfying young-to-old and old-to-young communication behaviors that are sources of intergenerational conflict. In intergenerational communication, conflict may arise due to generational differences over lifestyle choices, habits, worldviews, and political beliefs, and the negotiation of these differences often involves verbal or behavioral expressions. Conflict can easily escalate if these differences are not managed well. Zhang (2004) examined Chinese college students’ written accounts of their intergenerational communication experiences in conflict situations to uncover conflict-initiating factors. Results indicated five major types of initiating factors including old-to-young criticism, old-to-young illegitimate demand and rebuff, young-to-old criticism and disagreement/ generation gap. Comparison of the initiating factors identified in this study with previous studies on interpersonal conflict (e.g., Witteman 1992) reveals that some of the categories are shared (e.g., criticism, illegitimate demand, and rebuff) and some are different (i.e., young-to-old criticism and disagreement/generation gap, young-to-old rebuff and older adults’ physical/mental inability). While the most frequent initiating factor in interpersonal conflict is annoyance, the most frequent initiating factor in intergenerational context is criticism. These results indicate the influence and functions of age and age stereotypes in intergenerational communication in conflict situations.
Several studies have been conducted as initial forays into intergenerational conflict management styles. Bergstrom and Williams (1995) took an intergroup perspective to examine young people’s perceptions of intergenerational conflict. They manipulated age in order to make the target either an older person or a young adult in a work setting. Results indicated that respondents reported most satisfaction with an older co-worker who was cooperative and least satisfaction with a young co-worker who competed. Bergstrom and Nussbaum (1996) examined younger and older adults’ general conflictstyle preferences. Participants completed a conflict questionnaire and recalled and described a recent conflict scenario. The researchers found that younger participants scored higher on the control style whereas the older sample scored higher on the solution-oriented style. They also found that the younger adults preferred to use non-confrontational style as the depth of the conflict increased, but depth of conflict did not affect older adults’ reports of style preference. Bergstrom and Nussbaum (1996) claimed that preference for solution-orientation in conflict management increases as individuals age. Supporting this view, Cicirelli (1981) found a negative relationship between the age of adult children and their report of conflict with their parents, indicating that maturity likely minimizes the base for conflict between them.
Zhang et al. (2005) examined intergenerational conflict management styles in China from both older and younger adults’ perspectives. Older and younger Chinese adults were randomly assigned to evaluate one of the four conversation transcripts in which an older worker criticizes a young co-worker. The young worker’s response to the older worker’s criticism was manipulated to reflect competing, avoiding, accommodating, or problemsolving. Results demonstrated that older participants favored the accommodating style over the problem-solving style. Young adults either preferred the problem-solving style to the accommodating style, or judged the two styles as equally positive. The findings revealed the combined effects of age-group membership and cultural values on how conflict styles are evaluated.
Suitor and Pillemer (1988) examined intergenerational conflict in the family context between adult children and elderly parents who live together. The researchers’ telephone interviews with 372 older adults revealed that the conflict frequency in general was reported as very low. From the perspectives of adult development and intergenerational relations, they explained that older adults were irritated less often in their relationships with young adults, due to more developed social maturity and emotional control. Among the reported conflicts, adult children’s dependence on housing and need for financial assistance were listed as sources of conflict in addition to other factors such as how money is spent, who should do household chores, and the child’s job. In general, previous research has indicated that young adults have more trouble differentiating between salient and non-salient conflict than older adults; thus older adults may not report those very same interactions as salient conflict (Sillars & Zeitlow 1993). From both elderly parents’ and adult children’s perspectives, Clarke et al. (1999) uncovered six most common themes of conflict between aging parents and their adult children, including communication and interaction styles, habits and lifestyle choices, values, religion, work, and household standards. Close examination of the conflict themes reveal several frequent initiating factors centering on issues of interaction style (e.g., old-to-young criticism), most often listed by young adults, and generational difference in personal habits and lifestyle, most often cited by older adults.
Intergenerational conflict management from the life-span perspective emphasizes the influence of age-group membership, age stereotypes, and culture on the process. Yet much of the research on negative aspects of relationships such as conflict has focused on young adults’ views. In addition, there has been little effort devoted to deriving theoretical explanations for why and how young versus older adults differ in perceptions and attributions of conflict. As age is a fundamental aspect of social categorization similar to other intergroup distinctions such as gender and race, future research should examine the influences of age salience on intergenerational conflict-management styles.
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