Different Cultures in the Office: Fight Fair But Not the Same

Let's face it.  No one likes conflict in the office. But did you know that different cultures have different ways of confronting people?

A major cultural difference between the West and the East is what’s commonly called “indirect” forms of confrontation. In the United States, one of the most “direct” nations in the world, directness during conflict resolution is a cardinal virtue, signifying efficiency, egalitarianism and professionalism, according to newswise.com.

But in East Asian nations like Japan, South Korea and parts of China, some of the more “indirect” nations in the world, direct action can be taken as fatally disrespectful because it does not allow the offender to recognize the problem and decide how to fix it.

Researchers argue that indirect conflict resolution is fundamentally misunderstood in the West — and the stakes are high, because research suggests that direct communicators who square off against an indirect conflict management style, for example in a negotiation, almost always claim less value in a disagreement.

Fundamentally different priorities in Eastern and Western cultures underpin the difference — and relative strength — of an indirect approach. Whereas Westerners prioritize being impersonal during direct conflict resolution (i.e., “don’t take it so personally”), Eastern cultures prioritize the interpersonal relationship as much, if not more, as the issue at hand.

In “East Asian cultures, people and work are viewed as elements of a whole,” while “in the West — particularly in the U.S. — the very notion of professionalism is to put aside personal issues and focus on the task.” Relationships remain paramount in indirect confrontation.

While researchers acknowledge the substantial research showing that avoidance is more socially normative in Asia than the West, these measurements are “too blunt” to recognize finer distinctions between literal avoidance — that is, doing nothing — and “a more subtle approach that nonetheless deals with the conflict at hand," says Professor Kristin Behfar.  She cites a recent study showing that, when a conflict is interpersonal, “Koreans were significantly more likely than Americans to believe the conflict should be resolved.”

However, perhaps due to this high prioritization of interpersonal harmony, this study showed that East Asians are also more likely to opt out of participating in groups with known interpersonal conflict. Behfar notes that this is only rational: East Asians’ belief that conflict is highly detrimental to collaboration has been corroborated by empirical studies. Westerners, on the other hand, “remain surprisingly optimistic that relational conflict can be finessed," as suggested in another study.

Indirect confrontation focuses on signals and direct confrontation relies on action. But while it is easy to understand how an action can be confrontational, signaling can be, too. Because predominantly indirect cultures also prize controlling emotional expressions, “initially, it is appropriate to hide emotion and signal privately to indicate the underlying claim<' she notes.

If the other party does not respond, however, indirect conflict resolution escalates into public shaming, which is a very confrontational way to signal discontent. In indirect confrontation cultures, apologies are understood to be general expressions of remorse that do not signal blame or responsibility, thus they occur frequently in order to restore social harmony. In direct confrontation cultures where apologies are taken as admissions of guilt, they are used much less frequently.

In indirect confrontation cultures, the offended party is very likely to ask a hierarchical third party to resolve a conflict. However, mediation is a global phenomenon. Disputants ask third parties to intervene and resolve conflicts in both indirect and direct confrontational cultures, and the role these mediators play is identical in all cultures.

Yet there is a difference in timing for when a third party is asked to intervene: In East Asian cultures, it happens at the very beginning, while in direct cultures like the United States, this happens only after all other options have been exhausted. Intervening at the beginning allows the parties to avoid interpersonal conflict, since neither party is responsible for any potential loss of face — the third party carries the weight of the decision. Successful intervention at the end, after direct confrontation has failed, is a harder task because the third party has to establish the face-saving, respectful relationship the disputants could not figure out for themselves.


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