Resolving Conflict in a Multicultural Environment
by Andrea Williams
Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: "Resolving Conflict in a Multicultural Environment." MCS Conciliation Quarterly. Summer, 1994. Pp. 2-6.
Andrea Williams discusses cultural dimension in conflict and its resolution in application to local government entities. The demography and cultural attitudes of the U.S. population are changing. Current statistical research shows that one out of four Americans is of Hispanic origins or a person of color. They would constitute the majority of the American population by the middle of the 21st century. The "melting pot" concept never became the reality. Currently, many groups prefer to maintain their traditions and beliefs and resist assimilation into Eurocentric or Anglo culture. Those demographic and perceptional changes create the necessity for governmental agencies to develop better understanding of cultural differences and conflicts promoted by them.
Culture is a group which shapes a person's values and identity. A single term used to define a particular culture is often exclusive. For example, the term "Hispanic" does not take into account cultural differences between Cuban-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Cultural identities can stem from the following differences: race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, country of origin, and geographic region.
Cultural conflicts arise because of the differences in values and norms of behavior of people from different cultures. A person acts according to the values and norms of his or her culture; another person holding a different worldview might interpret his or her behavior from an opposite standpoint. This situation creates misunderstanding and can lead to conflict. Often people of the mainstream America, the Anglo culture, perceive their behavior and beliefs as an ultimate norm, forgetting that Anglo culture is just one of the multiple cultures existing in the USA. They are often unable to perceive their own cultural distinctiveness.
For example, a group of women wrote an excellent and detailed proposal, but did badly during the interview part of the evaluation. It happened because those women came from a culture where establishing personal relationships precedes business relationships. These women felt uncomfortable when government officials did not allow time for casual conversation and immediately moved toward firing questions at them.
The following case exemplifies how unintentionally one cultural group can hurt the feelings of the other. The city of Kenai, Alaska was planning a celebration of 200 years since the first Russian fur traders came to the region. A Native Indian tribe which lived in Alaska for a thousand years was offended by the implication that before the Russians came to the region there was no civilization there. As a result the celebration turned to a year-long event and Native Indian culture became its basis. By the end of the celebration, the Kenai Bicentennial Visitors and Cultural Center was completed. Thus, accommodation of different cultural interests helped the region to recognize its historical past.
Identifying cultural conflicts.
Cultural conflict has three dimensions. To the two dimensions that every conflict has (content and relational), cultural conflict adds the third one--"a clash of cultural values." (p. 3) This third dimension constitutes the foundation of the conflict since it determines personal identity.
Cultural conflict can be identified by the following signs: (1) it usually has complicated dynamics. Cultural differences mentioned above tend to create complex combinations of expectations about one's own and others' behavior. (2) If addressing content and relational issues does not resolve the conflict, it can be rooted in cultural differences. (3) Conflict reoccurs or arises strong emotions even though the issue of disagreement is insignificant.
Resolving cultural conflicts.
The resolution of cross-cultural conflict begins with identifying whether cultural issues are involved. There are three ways of cross-cultural conflict resolution.
1. Probing for the cultural dimension.
The resolution process should start from the parties' acknowledgment that their conflict contains a cultural dimension. Next, there should be willingness on all sides to deal with all conflict dimensions including the cultural one. Third, systematic phased work on the conflict is needed. Williams identified four phases: (1) the parties describe what they find offensive in each other's behavior; (2) they get an understanding of the other party's cultural perceptions; (3) they learn how the problem would be handled in the culture of the opponent; (4) they develop conflict solutions. Resolution of the conflict is particularly complicated if the conflict arose not just out of misunderstanding of the other's behavior, but because of incompatible values.
2. Learning about other cultures.
People can prevent cross-cultural conflicts by learning about cultures that they come in contact with. This knowledge can be obtained through training programs, general reading, talking to people from different cultures, and learning from past experiences. Important aspects of cultural education are understanding your own culture and developing cultural awareness by acquiring a broad knowledge of values and beliefs of other cultures, rather than looking at them through the prism of cultural stereotypes.
3. Altering organizational practices and procedures.
Often the organizational structure reflects the norms of just one culture and inherits the cultural conflict. In such cases, structural change becomes necessary to make the system more sensitive to cultural norms of other people.
Conflict, depending on the outcome, can be a positive or negative experience for an organization. With changing demographics, cultural differences become an acute issue. Many groups resist assimilation and wish to preserve their cultural distinctiveness, which makes cultural conflict education an essential tool for maintaining healthy relations in organizations and society in general.