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What are the Biggest Causes of Intercultural Conflict?

What are the Biggest Causes of Intercultural Conflict?

Driven by many factors, intercultural relationships are rapidly becoming the norm for most people across the world.

Businesses are increasingly growing their presence across international borders which means that it’s far more common for employees to be part of intercultural teams and networks.

Multinational acquisitions are also a major reason for increases in intercultural relationships. A corporate acquisition, for example, may mean that staff in America acquire a Japanese CEO and begin reporting to a Japanese management team.

Migration has also played a role. Multicultural families are now part of our cultural norms – years ago, it may have been unusual for someone to marry outside their own culture but this is now something that people generally don’t bat an eyelid at.

Intercultural relationships can be incredibly rewarding and productive when they work well.

A multicultural employee base with different approaches to business challenges undoubtedly leads to richer innovations and understanding.

Parents who can build on the best childcare approaches from their respective cultures will most certainly be rearing their children with the best of both worlds.

However, when intercultural relationships don’t work well, then things can spiral into conflict fairly quickly.

For example, couples might start arguing that their way of childrearing is the right way, corporate teams may stop communicating with their colleagues from other cultures; viewing them as untrustworthy or obstructive, or, managers of multicultural teams may see an increase in staff exits due to their inability to adapt their communication style cross culturally.


3 Factors Most Likely to Create Intercultural Conflict



The most common driver of intercultural conflict derives from something known as ‘ethnocentrism’.

Ethnocentrism essentially stems from an individual’s belief that their culture and way of doing things is the right way. There are lots of different levels of ethnocentrism, but an extreme ethnocentric will view the world quite simply as their experience of it. Alternatives to their own way of seeing the world and interacting in it are quite unimaginable. An individual with this extreme view will have no concept of being a product of culture themselves - everyone else has a culture but they don’t. They way they do things is right and the way everyone else does this is wrong!

It’s quite clear how ethnocentrism can cause intercultural conflict. A manager, who thinks that their way is the right way, will cause upset with his / her reporting staff, fail to listen to their needs, undermine their approaches and, quite likely, demotivate them. In a personal relationship, someone who feels their culture is superior and tries to enforce it will either destroy the relationship, or, create a situation in which their partner is forced to ignore their own culture and adapt to another – something that will undoubtedly cause resentment and upset.



Every culture has its own different set of values, and own beliefs as to what is right or wrong.

These values drive our behaviours. Take for example someone who places a great deal of value on time. They may even see time as money and resent people who waste their time. If you put this person with someone who doesn’t place value on time, then this can provide fertile ground for intercultural conflict.

In a different scenario, intercultural conflict is very possible if someone who values harmony and continuity is required to work closely with someone who values and strives for change. Change can be perceived as threatening the status quo and harmony by those who value these areas. They may, therefore, not embrace it as quickly and may even been seen by others to be obstructing it.


Cultural Communication

Different cultures have their own communication rules and their own ways of exchanging messages.

In fact, it’s fair to say that the way people communicate can vary greatly. In Asia and the Middle East for example, people rely less on words than people in the West and instead make great use of body language, facial expressions, silence and what is not said as opposed to what is said.

There are a huge number of ways in which poor cross-cultural communication competence can cause intercultural conflict.

To illustrate a possible scenario, we’ll give a fairly black and white example of someone from the USA who visits Japan to sell a product. During the meeting, the American ‘says it as it is’ which comes across as brash and unthinking to the Japanese counterparts. Since the Japanese value harmony they continue to smile and do not offend the American by telling her that they find her rude. When the meeting concludes, she asks them whether they like the product and tries to steer them towards ordering a number of units. The Japanese tell her that they like the product very much and that they will be in touch. The American leaves the meeting happy and with the understanding that she will be receiving orders. When she finds out, at a later date, that they will not be making orders, she is extremely upset. Her Japanese counterparts were smiling at her and they said they liked the product. She feels that the Japanese team were underhanded and that they deceived her into thinking that they would be moving forward with a purchase.

In this scenario, differences in the communication style between the cultures has had negative results for both the Americans and Japanese. The American failed to sell her product and the Japanese potentially missed out on purchasing a product that would have benefited them.


Causes of Intercultural Conflict

We have seen that there are many factors which can cause intercultural conflict.

Although ethnocentrism, cultural values and communication style are three key factors, they do not stand in isolation.

There are many other factors. Whether intercultural relationships are personal or business, it’s essential that individuals recognise their own cultural frameworks and take the time to assess the values driving their behaviour.

If they are to have productive and fruitful intercultural relationships, then it’s important they understand that their way is not necessarily the ‘right’ way. Just different. By taking the time to understand the cultures we interface with, we are able to identify where intercultural conflict is most likely to happen and make efforts to ensure this is managed positively.


Want to understand more about culture? 

Then enrol on our fantastic online cultural awareness training course. This course is a fantastic opportunity for business staff to undertstand more about the impact of culture on business and to gain practical insights to help manage cultural difference in a positive way. This online course can also be uploaded to corporate LMSs for broad company use.


Prefer to take part in a live training webinar led by one of our expert intercultural trainers? 

Then contact us to ask how.


We will be discussing ways to deal with intercultural conflict in an upcoming blog.

In the meantime, there are plenty of online training resources to help you build your cultural competence. These online resources will give you an understanding of the drivers within particular cultures and more generic strategies for cross cultural working.


 You may also find the following blogs useful:

Culture at Work: The Value of Intercultural Skills 

Intercutlural Skills are Crucial say HR Leaders 

How to become and Intercutlural Trainer

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