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By: Austin Gamey

How to Respond

Given culture an important role in conflicts, what should be done to keep it in mind and include it in response plans? Culture may act like temperamental children: complicated, elusive, and difficult to predict. Unless we develop comfort with culture as an integral part of a conflict, we may find ourselves tangled in its net of complexity, limited by our cultural lenses. Cultural fluency is an essential tool for disentangling and managing multi layered, cultural conflicts.

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Cultural fluency means familiarity with cultures: their natures, how they work, and ways they intertwine with our relationships in times of conflict and harmony. Cultural fluency means awareness of several dimensions of culture, including

  •    Communication,
  •    Ways of naming, framing, and taming conflict,
  •    Approaches to meaning making,
  •    Identities and roles.

Each of these is described in more detail below.

Communication refers to different starting points about how to relate to and with others. There are many variations on these starting points, and some of the major variations relate to the division between high- and low-context communications, a classification devised by Edward T. Hall.

In high-context communication, most of the message is conveyed by the context surrounding it, rather than being named explicitly in words. The physical setting, the way things are said, and shared understandings are relied upon to give communication meaning. Interactions feature formalised and stylised rituals, telegraphing ideas without spelling them out. Nonverbal cues and signals are essential to the comprehension of the message. The context is trusted to communicate in the absence of verbal expressions, or sometimes in addition to them. High-context communication may help save face because it is less direct than low-context communication, but it may increase the possibilities of miscommunication and creation of a negative perception because much of the intended message is unstated.

Low-context communication emphasises directness rather than relying on the context to communicate. From this starting point, verbal communication is precise and literal, and less is conveyed in implied, indirect signals. Low-context communicators tend to “say what they mean and mean what they say.” Low-context communication may help prevent misunderstandings, but it can also escalate conflict because it is more confrontational than high-context communication.

As people communicate, they move along a continuum between high- and low-context. Depending on the kind of relationship, the context, and the purpose of communication, they may be more or less explicit and direct. In close relationships, communication shorthand is often used, which makes communication opaque to outsiders but clear to the parties.

Ways of naming, framing, and taming conflict vary across cultural boundaries:  Not everyone agrees on what constitutes a conflict. For those accustomed to subdued, calm discussion, an emotional exchange among family members may seem a threatening conflict. The family members themselves may look at their exchange as a normal and desirable airing of differing views. Intractable conflicts are also subject to different interpretations. Is an event a skirmish, a provocation, an escalation, or a mere trifle, hardly worth noticing? The answer depends on perspective, context, and how identity relates to the situation.

Just as there is no consensus across cultures or situations on what constitutes a conflict or how events in the interaction should be framed, so there are many different ways of thinking about how to tame it. Should those involved meet face to face, sharing their perspectives and stories with or without the help of an outside mediator? Or should a trusted friend talk with each of those involved and try to help smooth the waters? Should a third party be known to the parties or a stranger to those involved?

John Paul Lederach, in his book Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures, identifies two third-party roles that exist in U.S. and Somali settings, respectively: the formal mediator and the traditional elder. The formal mediator is not known to those involved, and he or she tries to act without favouritism or investment in any particular outcome. Traditional elders are revered for their local knowledge and relationships and are relied upon for direction and advice, as well as for their skills in helping parties communicate with each other.

These are just some of the ways that taming conflict varies across cultures. Third parties may use different strategies with entirely different goals, depending on their cultural sense of what is needed. In multicultural contexts, parties’ expectations of how the conflict should be addressed may vary, further escalating an existing conflict.

Approaches to meaning-making also vary across cultures. Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars suggest that people have a range of starting points for making sense of their lives, including:

  •    Universalist (favouring rules, laws, and generalisations) and particularist (favouring exceptions, relations, and contextual evaluation)
  •    Specificity (preferring explicit definitions, breaking down wholes into parts, and measurable results) and diffuseness (focusing on patterns, the big picture, and process over outcome)
  •    Inner direction (sees virtue in individuals who strive to realise their conscious purpose) and outer direction (where virtue is outside each of us in natural rhythms, nature, beauty, and relationships)
  •    Synchronous time (cyclical and spiralling) and sequential time (linear and unidirectional).

When we don’t understand that others may have quite different starting points, conflict is more likely to occur and to escalate. Even though the starting points themselves are neutral, negative motives are easily attributed to someone who begins from a different end of the continuum.

Identities and roles refer to conceptions of the self. Am I an individual unit, autonomous, a free agent, ultimately responsible for myself? Or am I first and foremost a member of a group, weighing choices and actions by how the group will perceive them and be affected by them? Those who see themselves as separate individuals likely come from societies anthropologists call individualist. Those for whom group allegiance is primary usually come from settings anthropologists call collectivist, or communitarian.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to conflict resolution since culture is always a factor. Cultural fluency is, therefore, a core competency for those who intervene in conflicts or simply want to function more efficiently in their own lives and situations. Cultural fluency involves recognising and acting respectfully from the knowledge that communication, ways of naming, framing, and taming conflict, approaches to meaning-making, and identities and roles vary across cultures.

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