How to Solve Intercultural Conflict

How to solve intercultural conflict? We can start by building rapport and learning about common cultural differences—but we also need to look beyond culture to appreciate one another as individuals.

By Katie Shonkon / International Negotiation

how to solve intercultural conflict

The question of how to solve intercultural conflict is one of the most difficult ones facing negotiators. Misunderstandings and disputes caused by cultural differences can further complicate already challenging negotiations, whether you are doing business at home, abroad, or online. The following guidelines can help us achieve better results in cross-cultural communication and negotiation.

1. Jump-Start Cross-Cultural Negotiations

What should you do when negotiations have ended in rancor, and you and your counterpart aren’t even talking to each other?

In July 2018, North Korean soldiers based at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea apparently picked up the phone. When it rang in the U.S. base on the other side of the DMZ, the United Nations Command team—staffed primarily by U.S. military personnel—didn’t know where the sound was coming from, the Wall Street Journal reports. Eventually, someone picked up the receiver of an old pink touch-tone phone. To the soldiers’ shock, North Korea was on the line.

The two adversaries had installed a phone hotline in 1976 to share official messages and lessen tensions. But North Korean soldiers stopped responding to calls from their counterparts across the DMZ in 2013. For five years, U.S. military officer Daniel McShane placed four unanswered calls every weekday to his counterparts 125 feet away.

After North Korea resumed contact, the two sides began talking every morning and afternoon, developing a rapport while discussing their passions and preferences, from the Los Angeles Dodgers to Doritos to whiskey. “If they’re talking, they’re not shooting,” McShane told the Journal.

As this story suggests, when determining how to overcome cultural barriers in communication, keep in mind that rapport and trust are key—and often need to be established or repaired slowly. If your differences seem daunting, you might start by simply picking up the phone and talking about common interests, however unimportant they may seem.

2. Understand Cultural Tendencies

When considering how to solve intercultural conflict, a better understanding of basic cultural tendencies can help. The world’s cultures can be roughly divided into three prototypes that affect how we negotiate and resolve conflict—namely, “dignity,” “face,” and “honor” cultures, write researchers Soroush Aslani, Jimena Ramirez-Marin, Zhaleh Semnani-Azad, Jeanne M. Brett, and Catherine Tinsley in a chapter in the Handbook of Research on Negotiation (Edward Elgar, 2013).

Dignity cultures, which include the United States, Canada, and Northern Europe, developed in agriculture societies with low population density where food production became an individual rather than a collective effort. Consequently, dignity cultures tend to prize independence and free will.

By contrast, face cultures, found primarily in East Asian societies such as China and Japan, sprang up in agricultural regions that required organized food production, a collective goal. Face cultures tend to emphasize social responsibility, saving face, avoiding direct confrontation, and deferring to authority.

Honor cultures, found in herding economies with low population density, include the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and parts of southern Europe. Traits that promote theft deterrence are prevalent in honor cultures, including a strong defense of one’s family, reliance on a code of honor, close family ties, and distrust of outsiders. When negotiating with members of honor cultures, it may be particularly important to spend time building trust and managing conflict.

3. Look Beyond Culture

Knowledge of broad cultural differences can help us better understand puzzling negotiating and conflict resolution behavior from our counterparts. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that most societies are a blend of prototypes rather than pure exemplars, write Aslani and colleagues. The herding economy and low population density of the American Southwest, for instance, fostered an honor culture, while more agricultural regions of the United States often resemble dignity cultures. Moreover, individuals often choose to reject their culture’s norms and ideals.

Thus, in international business negotiations and dispute resolution, it would be a mistake to view an a particular counterpart or disputant as a living embodiment of their culture. In fact, in one survey, University of Waterloo, Canada, professor Wendi L. Adair found that experienced American and Japanese business negotiators adjusted their negotiating style too far toward the other side’s culture, resulting in confusion and misunderstandings.

Rather than viewing counterparts as stereotypical representatives of their cultural group, you might consider whether or not they share a “family resemblance” with their culture of origin. Throughout your interactions, continue to look beyond culture, striving to learn about them as individuals.

What other advice do you have for those who are considering how to solve intercultural conflict?