Managing Intercultural Conflict. Becoming More Intercultural
What happens when there is conflict in intercultural relationship? One option involves distinguishing between productive and destructive conflict in at least four ways. First, in productive conflict, individuals or groups try to identify the specific problem; in destructive conflict, they make sweeping generalizations and have negative attitudes. For example, in an argument, one shouldn’t say: ”You never do the dishes”, or “You always put me down in front of my friends”. Rather, one should state the specific example of being put down: “Last evening when you criticized me in front of our friends, I felt bad”.
Second, in productive conflict, individuals or groups focus on the original issue; in destructive conflict, they escalate the conflict from the original issues and anything in the relationship is open for reexamination. For example, guests on talk shows discussing extramarital affairs might start by citing a specific affair and then expand the conflict to include any number of prior arguments. The more productive approach would be to talk only about the specific affair.Third, in productive conflict, individuals or groups direct the discussion toward cooperative problem solving (“How can we work this out?”); in destructive conflict, they try to seize power and use threats and deception (“Either you do what I want, or …”). Finally, in productive conflict, individuals or groups value leadership that stresses mutually satisfactory outcomes; in destructive conflict, they polarize behind single-minded and militant leadership. In many political conflicts, such as those in the Middle East, people seem to have fallen into this trap, with leaders unwilling to work toward mutually satisfactory outcomes.
Intercultural competence is the degree to which an individual is able to exchange information effectively and appropriately with individuals who are culturally dissimilar. Individuals vary widely in their ability to communicate with culturally unalike others. The purpose of most research, training, teaching in the field of intercultural communication is to improve the intercultural competence of individuals. One of the most important skills for cultural competence is the ability to suspend our assumptions about what is “right”. The greater the range of alternatives to which we are exposed, the more choices we have for deciding what makes sense for us. Knowing another culture gives you a place to stand while you take a good look at the one you were born into. Anthropologists are taught to be nonjudgmental about cultural differences. Even though they may study a culture that has sexual practices considered bizarre by European/North American standards, anthropologists seek to understand the functions fulfilled by these sexual practices from the point of view of the culture in which they occur.
We live in a world that is increasingly diverse in a cultural sense. Large cities, for example, have diverse population. Improved communication technologies and transportation make intercultural contact increasingly common. This trend will continue in the future; the “global village” becomes more real every day. If individuals could attain a higher degree of intercultural competence, they would become better citizens, students, and so forth. Society would be more peaceful, more productive, and become a generally more attractive place in which to live. Individuals would be better able to understand others who are unlike themselves. Through such improved understanding, a great deal of conflict could be avoided, the world would be a better place.If you want to become more interculturally experienced you should learn about individuals unlike yourselves, make friends with them, take vacations in other nations (go on student exchanges, study at foreign universities). Contacts with culturally different people provide an opportunity to become more interculturally competent, but they do not guarantee it. Our ability to learn from other individuals depends on our ability to overcome the barriers of culture. Willingness to expand one’s skills to include intercultural communication is an essential first step in overcoming barriers to intercultural communication. Intercultural contact in many cases leads an individual to become more ethnocentric, prejudiced, and discriminatory. Even when we are aware of the barriers that make intercultural communication particularly difficult, we may mistakenly attribute problems to other people rather than examining our own skills or lack of them. Misunderstandings are as likely to result from intercultural contact as are understandings. Thus one of the most important barriers to intercultural competence is ethnocentrism.