With intercultural relationships rapidly becoming the norm for most people across the world, intercultural conflict is also becoming more common.
In this article, we'll look at the most common causes of intercultural conflict and give you some real life examples of intercultural conflict in the work place.
Firstly, why are intercultural relationships becoming the norm?
- Businesses are increasingly growing their presence across international borders
Meaning that it’s far more common for employees to be part of intercultural teams and networks. Research shows that well functioning multicultural teams are more productive, innovative and creative.
- International business expansion and market acquisition is rapid
Multinational acquisitions are becoming more common, which is acccelerating international networking and intercultural relationships. During a corporate acquisition, for example, staff in America may acquire a Japanese CEO and begin reporting to a Japanese management team.
- International businesses are more likely to give expatriate opportunities to staff
Expatriate opporutnities are given for a number of reasons, but typically it's in a bid to a) retain and incentivise talent and to b) fill technical and specialist resource gaps in international offices. Once again, staff may acquire new foreign colleagues or managers, forcing them to learn how to communication across intercutural lines.
- Migration and multicutural family units are part of the social fabric
Years ago, it may have been unusual for someone to marry outside their own culture but this is now something that is accepted as entirely normal, and acceptable. It's also fair to say that 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.
3 Most Likely Causes of Intercultural Conflict
Intercultural relationships can be incredibly rewarding and productive when they work well. However, when they don't, 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.
Cause Number 1 - Ethnocentrism
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.
Let's take, for example, a British manager, within the Oil and Gas industry, who moved to Pakistan to oversee the activities of a team of geologists. On arrival, the manager was surprised to find he had his own office. In the UK, he sat amongst his staff in an open plan working area. Despite advice to the contrary, he arranged for his desk to be moved to the open plan area. Once the move had been implemented, he found that the staff were very upset with him. Why? Because British culture tends to see equality between staff as a good thing. However, Pakistan is a fairly hierarchical culture and staff often perceive their manager as being in a management position due to their superior skills and understanding. By effectively climbing 'down' the hierarchy, the staff lost respect for the manager and questionned his management credentials. Although this may not sound a big deal, the manager was eventually repatriated to the UK as it was impossible for him to win back the respect of his staff. This resulted in the loss of nearly £100k in assignment investment and a good deal of upset for the manager.
Cause Number 2 - Differences in Cultural Values
Every culture has its own different set of values, and 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 continuity is required to work closely with someone who values 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.
Let's take, for example, a German project manager who went to the UAE in a bid to introduce the local office to a new business integrated system. After a few days of interfacing with the local managers, he became extremely frustrated during a meeting and walked out. Why? Because during meetings, he became offended that his Emirati colleagues were openly using their phones to text or take calls. Equally, there were occassions where individuals (unrelated to the meeting), walked in and started a conversation with someone, which delayed procedings. Unfortunately for the German manager, had he had some form of intercultural training prior to his visit, he would have been aware that time and agendas are not valued in the same way in UAE culture. Instead, people and relationships are prioritised over time. The concept of 'time is money' does not really exist in the UAE. As such, an Emirati meeting attendee, contacted by a relative or colleague who is need of something, is very likely to deal with that need.
Cause Number 3 - 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.
Let's take, a 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.
** Which country do you think has the most complex business culture?
The Business Culture Complexity Index ™ Business Culture Complexity Index ™ ranks the cultures of the top 50 economies.
How do I avoid intercutlural 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 fctors.
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.
To ensure productive and fruitful intercultural relationships, then it’s important to understand that one's own 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 online cultural awareness training e-Learning 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?