Competent intercultural conflict management depends on many factors. One of the key factors is to increase our awareness and knowledge concerning diverse conflict styles and facework issues. Intercultural conflict can be defined as any implicit or explicit antagonistic struggle between persons of different cultures due, in part, to cultural or ethnic group membership differences. Beyond cultural group membership differences and intergroup historical grievances, differences in situational expectations, goal orientations, conflict styles, facework tendencies, and perceived scarce resources (e.g., time, power currencies) may further complicate an already complex conflict situation.
Some prominent sources of intercultural conflict include cultural/ethnic value clashes, communication decoding problems, and identity inattention issues. Cultural value clash issues can involve the clash of individualistic “I-identity” values with collectivistic “weidentity” values (Triandis 1995), with one party emphasizing “self-face-saving” and the other party valuing “relational-face-compromising”. In connecting national cultures with face concerns, for example, research reveals that while individualists (e.g., US respondents) tend to use more direct, self-face concern conflict behaviors (e.g., dominating/competing style), collectivists (e.g., Taiwanese and Chinese respondents) tend to use more indirect, other-face concern conflict behaviors (e.g., avoiding and obliging styles) (Ting-Toomey et al. 1991; Cai & Fink 2002). In addition, self-face concern has been associated positively with dominating and emotionally expressive conflict styles. Other-face/mutual-face concern has been associated positively with integrating, obliging, and compromising styles.
Self-face concern is the protective concern for one’s own identity image when one’s own face is threatened in the conflict episode. Other-face concern is the concern for accommodating the other conflict party’s identity image in the conflict situation. Mutualface concern is the concern for both parties’ images and for the image of the relationship (Ting-Toomey & Oetzel 2001). Conflict style is defined as the broad-based verbal and nonverbal responses to conflict in a variety of frustrating conflict situations. Whether we choose to engage in or disengage from a conflict process often depends on our ingrained cultural conflict habits and how we negotiate various face concerns. Face is really about identity respect and other-identity consideration issues within and beyond the actual conflict encounter. It is tied to the emotional significance and estimated appraisals that we attach to our own social self-worth and the social self-worth of others (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi 1998).
Intercultural Conflict: A Face-Threatening Communication Process
When our face image is being threatened in a conflict situation, we are likely to experience identity-based frustration, emotional vulnerability, guilt, shame, hurt, resentment, anger, or even the desire for vengeance. The threats to face can be on the group membership level or the individual level. The conditions of an intercultural face-threatening process (FTP) can include the following. First, the greater the importance of the culturally appropriate facework rule that is violated, the more severe is the perceived FTP. Second, the larger the cultural distance is between the conflict parties, the more mistrust or misunderstanding cumulates in the FTP. Third, the more important the conflict topic or imposition of the conflict demand, as interpreted from distinctive cultural angles, the more severe is the perceived FTP. Fourth, the more power the conflict initiator has over the conflict recipient, the more severe is the FTP perceived to be by the recipient. Fifth, the more harm or hurt the FTP produces, the more time and effort is needed to repair the FTP. Sixth, the more the actor is perceived as being directly responsible for initiating the conflict cycle, the more that person is held accountable for the FTP. Finally, the more the actor is viewed as an outgroup member, the more severe is the perceived FTP (Ting-Toomey & Takai 2006). Face concern becomes incrementally more salient if several of these conditions are present in a face-threatening communication process. For example, individuals are likely to move toward self-face saving emphasis as they perceive the escalation of the various face-threatening conditions directed at them. However, cultural factors come into play in terms of which strategies count as self-face saving or other-face saving. For individualists, self-face saving responses can include strategies such as verbal aggression and verbal defensive mode; other-face saving responses can include remaining calm and sharing personal viewpoints. For collectivists, self-face saving responses can include pretending the conflict does not exist and verbally sidestepping the conflict issue, while other-face/mutual-face saving responses can include giving in or seeking help from a high-status third party. In response to the heavy reliance on the individualistic western perspective in framing various conflict approaches, Ting-Toomey (1988) developed an intercultural conflict theory, the conflict face-negotiation theory, to include a collectivistic Asian perspective to broaden the theorizing process of various conflict orientations.
Conflict Face-Negotiation Theory: Key Research Findings
In a nutshell, Ting-Toomey’s (1988, 2005) conflict face-negotiation theory assumes that: (1) people in all cultures try to maintain and negotiate face in all communication situations; (2) the concept of face is especially problematic in emotionally threatening or identity vulnerable situations when the situated identities of the communicators are called into question; (3) the cultural value spectrums of individualism–collectivism and small/large power distance shape facework concerns and styles; (4) individualist and collectivist value patterns shape members’ preferences for self-oriented facework versus other-oriented facework; (5) small and large power-distance value patterns shape members’ preferences for horizontal-based facework versus vertical-based facework; (6) the value dimensions, in conjunction with individual, relational, and situational factors, influence the use of particular facework behaviors in particular cultural scenes; and (7) intercultural facework competence refers to the optimal integration of knowledge, mindfulness, and communication skills in managing vulnerable identity-based conflict situations appropriately, effectively, and adaptively.
In a direct empirical test of the theory (Oetzel et al. 2001; Oetzel & Ting-Toomey 2003), the research program tested the underlying assumption of the face-negotiation theory that face is an explanatory mechanism for the influence of cultural membership on conflict behavior. A questionnaire was administered to 768 participants in four national cultures (China, Germany, Japan, and the US) in their respective languages asking them to recall and describe a recent interpersonal conflict. The major findings of the study are as follows. First, cultural individualism–collectivism had direct effects on conflict styles, as well as mediated effects through self-construal and face concerns. Second, self-face concern was associated positively with dominating style and other-face concern was associated positively with avoiding and integrating styles. Third, face concerns accounted for all of the total variance explained in the dominating style and some of the total variance explained in the integrating and avoiding styles. Fourth, German respondents reported the frequent use of direct, confrontational facework strategies and did not care much for avoidance facework tactics; Japanese respondents reported the use of different pretending strategies to act as if the conflict situation did not exist; Chinese respondents engaged in a variety of avoiding, obliging, and also passive aggressive facework tactics; and Americans reported the use of upfront expression of feelings and remaining calm as facework strategies to handle problematic conflict situations.
While past conflict studies have consistently conceptualized the “avoidance” conflict style as low concern for self/low concern for other-interest in individualistic western cultures, studies conducted under the face-negotiation umbrella have consistently found that the avoidance style is related to other-face identity consideration issues and mediated by situational factors. Furthermore, emotionally expressive style, passive aggressive style, and third-party help-seeking style emerged as additional styles that need further research testing. It is evident that different conflict styles have different culturally based and individually based meanings and interpretations in different conflict situations and in different cultural communities. Current research (Merkin 2006) has also started to integrate the small/large power-distance value dimension with the individualism–collectivism value dimension in explaining face-threatening response messages and conflict styles. For example, Kaushal and Kwantes (2006) uncovered that “high concern for self/low concern for others” (i.e., the dominating conflict style) was positively associated with both vertical individualism and vertical collectivism. The methodological technique of Imagined Interactions (II) may also be a fruitful direction for future research into intercultural facework interactions (McCann & Honeycutt 2006).
Ting-Toomey et al. (2000) also examined the influence of ethnic background factors on conflict styles among four US ethnic groups. Major findings include: (1) Asianand Latino Americans tend to use avoiding and third-party conflict styles more than African-Americans; (2) Asian-Americans tend to use more avoidance conflict tactics than European Americans; additionally, (3) individuals with strong ethnic identities (i.e., identifying with their ethnic ingroup memberships) tend to use more integrating conflict strategies than individuals with weak ethnic identities; and (4) individuals with bicultural, ethnic, and assimilated identities tend to use more compromising conflict tactics than individuals with marginal identities. It is critical that the role of ethnic diversity issues in a culturally pluralistic society be taken into serious consideration in future facework theorizing efforts.
Ting-Toomey et al. also found that the personality trait of independent self-construal was associated positively with self-face conflict concern. The personality trait of interdependent self-construal was associated positively with other-face conflict concern. Situational and relational features such as time constraints and the cultural identity of the other were found to moderate the conflict style choices as predicted by cultural or ethnic membership, in a study of Australian expatriates working in east Asia (Brew & Cairns 2004). For example, the east Asians only managed conflict more indirectly than the Australians when dealing with a superior, particularly a western superior. Current facenegotiation theory effort has been directed to testing family socialization processes and situational features in explaining cross-cultural face concerns, conflict styles, and particular facework strategies.
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