Communication is a dynamic human activity that is defined and influenced by many factors. Interpersonal communication is especially influenced by the environment within which individuals live. As a consequence of the factors that inform interpersonal communication, there often arises conflict between different communicants. Depending on whether one comes from a culture that values independence or one in which interdependence is the norm, conflicts are resolved differently. In this proposal I will outline the path I intend to take to examine the different ways in which conflict is resolved in both individualistic and collectivistic cultures (Adler and Proctor II 395).
The researcher proposes to carry out a study that will examine the differences in conflict management styles between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Individualistic societies emphasize on the right of an individual to make independent decision and take personal action without interference by other members of the society. Collectivist societies are those in which individuals are expected to be interdependent, operating in groups and where social cohesion is emphasized (Gudykunst 9). The two societies differ in their approach because while individual rights are accentuated in one, the society takes precedence in the other. It is therefore important to examine the way conflict is approached and managed in both types of cultures.
This study will be guided by the following question:
What is the difference between individualistic and collectivistic strategies of conflict management?
The study will make the following assumption which will then be investigated: Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultures have different approaches to conflict management. This hypothesis has been reached out of casual observation but will now be examined in detail.
- Research Paper
This paper is the culmination of a study carried out to determine the differences in conflict resolution strategies between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. This paper will present the findings of the study under a number of headings. It will first examine interpersonal communication and the factors that influence it. It will then examine the relationship between culture, communication and conflict and also scrutinize both individualistic and collectivistic cultures. The paper will then delve into conflict management strategies and especially as they are applied in both cultures. The conclusion will sum up the contents of the study.
Interpersonal communication is simply the exchange of information and messages between two persons or groups of people. It is common in homes, workplaces, institutions of learning, business transactions, diplomatic endeavors and many other person-to-person situations. In most cases conflicts are developed and also resolved within the context of interpersonal communication. This kind of communication, however, does not operate in isolation and is actually a product of a number of forces. To begin personality traits are pivotal in defining how one communicates. An introvert, for example, may opt to avoid or accommodate conflict while an extrovert may prefer competition. Another factor that determines interpersonal communication is gender (Adler and Proctor II 394). Men tend to dominate conversation and to turn it into a popularity or masculine contest. Essentially, a man is content when he is being listened to and when his ideas gain prominence over those of the rival. Men sometimes end up quarreling instead of talking with one another because none is willing to listen to the other (s). Conversely, women focus more on equality and mutuality in their communication sessions. Interpersonal communication among women is characterized by turn-taking with each person being given time to express their opinion before another one chips in. Women communicants affirm more than negate what the other person is saying as opposed to men. Consequently, the conflict management styles of the two genders will be quite different because conflict management is also a communication process. Interpersonal communication is also influenced by other factors like education level, family background, career, past experiences, religion and so on.
This study, however, examined one of the greatest influences on communication – culture - and how it affects conflict resolution and management efforts for individuals emanating from such backgrounds.
Culture, Communication and Conflict
Culture is understood broadly to mean the way of life of a group of people. Broadly speaking, culture encompasses issues like language, religion, dressing, food and etiquette, music and dance, ceremonies and events and other related aspects of societal life. It is important to understand that whatever culture one originates from, there are implications for interpersonal communication (Gudykunst 41). For instance, in most African and Arabic cultures, there are restrictions on communication between persons of opposite genders and ages. Young people, for example cannot communicate with adults without adhering to some norms like respect and not answering back to the elderly. Similarly, women are in some cases not supposed to participate in men’s discussions or even participate in decision-making. Some of these restrictions are also imposed on people by the religious dogmas they subscribe to. Conversely, in western communities, communication is largely open and uninhibited. In the context of this study, culture is pivotal in influencing the way decisions relating to conflict are made.
This study approached cultural influences on interpersonal communication from the notion that cultures are either individualistic or collectivistic and this influences how persons who live within or subscribe to any of the two communicate with others and also manage their conflicts. It is important to understand the characteristics of each one of the two before examining the differences in conflict management styles.
Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel (199) posit that individualism has four crucial aspects. To begin with, the individual is the core and most important factor of the society. Additionally, individualistic societies emphasize on their members leading independent lives as opposed to interdependence among themselves. Another aspect is that the individual gets recognized and rewarded for personal achievements instead of ascribing every attainment to the larger society. The last aspect of individualism is that the individual is inimitable and of overriding worth. Many western and developed nations value individualism - a phenomenon in which loyalty is impermanent.
Persons emanating from individualistic cultures belong to many organizations and cannot therefore give permanent loyalty to any of them. For example one can change employers or religion at short notice. In essence, personal needs and comfort override those of the other members of the society and the rest of the community. In America, for example, changing employers is not a big issue because it is the employee’s prerogative based on how well he or she believes his or her needs are met by the employer.
In terms of communication, this culture emphasizes on communication being cognitively correct. Communicants are therefore interested in passing the message to the other person as accurately as possible so that it has the desired effect; whether positive or negative. This kind of communication is therefore hinged on the outcome and focused on the individual (Gudykunst 314).
In contrast to individualistic societies, collectivistic cultures are built on relationships. Members of the later are drawn together into in-groups that consist of close relatives, clan members, social organizations and related units that contribute to the welfare of each of the members of the society. In essence, each person within the community has equal share to the ‘property’ of the community and consequently owes loyalty to both the society and its members (Samovar, Porter, and McDaniel 200). In essence, the needs and views of the society take precedence over those of the individual. Moreover, there are norms and mores which define and control societal relationships and which must be adhered to by all members.
Similarly, collectivistic cultures emphasize on shared beliefs and not those that accentuate the individual over the other members of the society. In addition individuals are always willing to work together with members of the in-group. In essence, group issues are prioritized over those of the individual. This phenomenon is prevalent in Africa, Asia, the Arab World and Latin America among other places. Here, individual rights can be infringed upon by courses that are perceived to benefit the society.
Unlike in individualistic cultures, communication in collectivistic settings is deemed to be effective if it respects the other person’s feelings. Communication becomes an issue of compatibility, apposite manners and excellent associations. In essence communication is said to be effective if it follows a specified process and is focused on building and strengthening relationships (Gudykunst 314).
After understanding the nature and communication practices of both collectivistic and individualistic cultures, the study then examined how conflicts are resolved in each of the cultures. The researcher interacted with and interviewed members of American and Arab communities within the student community and also studied relevant books to arrive at logical conclusions.
Conflict management refers to the various approaches that are taken by groups or individuals in dealing with intractable disagreements with the aim of minimizing the negative effects of the situation, exploiting the positive aspects and finally bringing the conflicting parties to the negotiating table or to a mutually beneficial outcome (Adler and Proctor II 378).
The most recognized outcomes of a conflict are avoiding, accommodating, competing and collaborating each of which has its implications for the conflicting parties. Avoiding a conflict (or lose-lose situation) implies that there is an impasse and neither party will get what they want. Accommodating (lose-win situation) means that one party is willing to forfeit its rights in favor of the other thus ending the conflict. In competing (win-lose situation) one party has his or her way with the other losing. Compromising (partial lose-lose) is a situation which both of the parties sacrifice something to resolve the conflict. Lastly, collaborating (win-win situation) means that the conflicting parties have found a mutual way of solving the conflict and both will benefit from the agreed outcome (Adler and Proctor II 387).
Conflict Management within Individualistic Culture
As observed earlier, the American society is a typical example of an individualistic culture. In such cultures it is expected, and one is excused, when aggressiveness is displayed in the quest for one’s right in a conflict (Leung, Chiu, and Hong 191). This is because the individual is the paramount concern of this culture. Persons in a conflict are confrontational and adopt the competing strategy to resolve their problems. There are no conventional societal norms that teach against confrontation and the winner takes it all attitude or win-lose situation is adopted.
In the American society, competition is the word as people struggle to obtain resources at the expense of others. In a capitalistic society like this one, disputes are resolved in courts of law and it is not uncommon for kin to sue one another. The legal system becomes the main reference point for disputes because relations are not trusted to deliver a favorable verdict for the disputants. Among students, the study found out that aggressiveness is used to gain one’s desires and those who are weak end up losing. This attitude can be attributed to the community because of its insistence on personal success and the denigration of those perceived as being feeble or failures. This does not mean that the other conflict management methods are not used in individualistic cultures but that the one that most persons resort to at first instance is competition.
Conflict Management within Collectivistic Cultures
Leung, Chiu, and Hong assert that in collectivistic societies, the emphasis is always on building and maintaining relationships and this is what informs conflict management method (191). Consequently, members of such a society prefer to be non-confrontational in resolving and managing conflicts. In a conflict situation, they prefer avoiding, accommodating, compromising and collaborating rather than competing. The disputants emphasize on saving face for the other person rather than expose weaknesses that may hurt the reputation of the other person and create further difficulties of interaction in the community. Being assertive or confrontational is perceived negatively because of its propensity to cause disharmony in the society.
For example, this study found out that among Arab students conflicts are discussed by a larger number of people with the emphasis being a win-win situation in which harmony is restored and maintained or the other non-confrontational or seemingly egocentric strategies like competing. Similarly, other non-conflicting parties who help resolve the conflict do so because they feel their own reputations are at stake and not only those of the conflicting parties. Moreover, even among the larger Arab community, there is a tendency to avoid court cases and to revert to local cultural mechanisms because pursuing judicial means is perceived as exposing the society to ridicule. The same applies to penalties which may be prescribed for offenders – the older members of society are tasked with such responsibilities and those being punished rarely argue with the system. Another reason why avoidance is preferred is because members of the society have a lot of faith in the local mechanisms of conflict resolution.
This study was designed to examine the differences between conflict management strategies of collectivistic and individualistic societies. The researcher gathered material through literature study, interviews and informal surveys among students from Arabic (collectivistic) and American (individualistic) cultures. The study was guided by the assumption that the conflict management strategies for the two cultures were different owing to the different ways that members of these cultures communicate. The study found out that members of individualistic societies tend to be confrontational and favor a competing strategy in conflict situations because their culture emphasizes individual success over the wellbeing of the community. Conversely, people from collectivistic cultures often avoid conflict, accommodate, compromise or collaborate in order to maintain or restore relationships. In essence for one to understand interpersonal communication and conflict resolution across cultures, it is crucial that one understands whether the person (s) involved is from a collectivistic or individualistic culture.
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