When Is Conflict not a Conflict?

When you notice two people speaking very loudly and gesturing animatedly, would you assume they are arguing or just having a normal conversation? Or when someone comments negatively on the work you produce, does that affect you emotionally as a person? Do you welcome disagreements or challenges to your idea in front of your fellow colleagues? And what if that person disagreeing is someone much younger than you?

Our answers to the above questions often depend heavily on the cultural norms that we are accustomed to. In each situation, there are two possible outcomes: either we are unaffected and brush it off as nothing out of the ordinary or we would feel uncomfortable with the situation, perhaps mentally preparing for a potential conflict. In many instances, culture influences the way we interpret what words were said, how they were said and what behaviours were displayed within the context of the conversation. We would then make our own conclusion about the potential of a situation turning into a conflict.

Interestingly though, what we may perceive to be a conflict may not appear so to the one whom we are communicating with, especially if they are from a different background or culture. In fact, their reactions may be completely common within their culture. Perceived conflict can easily threaten the harmony of our working relationship, especially if we are feeling slighted but the other party is completely unaware of it.

For Malaysians working within a global business environment, there is a higher tendency for occurrences of perceived conflict. What are some examples of situations that may appear to be conflicts to us but not to our colleagues from other cultures? Consider the following:

  1. Tone of voice. It is important for Malaysians to maintain harmonious relationships with one another. As such, we typically speak in a moderate and controlled tone when conversing with people, as we equate this as respectful speech. If our mainland Chinese colleague were to suddenly address us in a loud and exuberant manner (especially if it’s related to a difference in opinion), might we perceive this to be a scolding? We would not if we were aware that mainland Chinese often equate being loud to cheerfulness and friendliness, especially if they come from a densely populated area where speaking loudly is inevitable.
  2. Choice of words – differentiating business from personal. Malaysians often view comments made about their work performance as a reflection of who they are as individuals. “My manager said that my report was terrible. That must mean I am terrible at my work.” On the other hand, North Americans tend to view work as distinct from their personality. And because of their tendency to communicate in a direct manner, fewer but precise words are often used to express how they feel. So if your American manager uses an unfavourable adjective about your report, try to keep in mind that it is not an attack on who you are as a person but rather a cue that you need to brush up on your report writing skills.
  3. Public disagreement of opinions. As a face-saving culture, Malaysians avoid publicly disagreeing with an opinion or challenging an idea, preferring to do so privately as a sign of respect to the other person. The Japanese take this to another level, finding it difficult even to say ‘No’ for fear of causing others to lose face. In contrast, Anglo and Nordic cultures are taught from young that the respectful approach is to question the norm and openly debate about differing ideas so that the best solution can be obtained. If you’re often in a meeting consisting of colleagues from various nationalities, being aware of how your colleagues might challenge or question you can help you prepare with the right perspective for any discussion.
  4. Age and hierarchy. A key part of Malaysian culture (as well as many eastern cultures) is the obligatory respect shown to those who are older in age and more senior in position. It is so deeply ingrained in our society that when someone steps outside of this rule, everyone immediately braces for some form of conflict. On the other hand, Anglo, Nordic and Germanic cultures assign merit based on a person’s capabilities rather than age or position. Therefore, it’s becoming increasingly common and acceptable for younger and more capable individuals to be placed in leadership positions especially in multinational organizations. Understanding the various views to hierarchy will help us work in a culturally intelligent manner and at the same time collectively achieve our organization’s objectives.

Naturally, all of us desire to work in an environment that is collaborative, harmonious and free from conflict. Having the awareness of how various cultures have different communication approaches to a single situation will enable us to avoid easily taking offense when none was intended. This will contribute to our success in communicating, collaborating and managing a diverse workforce. Contact us today to find out how you can further develop effective strategies to apply Cultural Intelligence when communicating with anyone from anywhere in the world.  

By: Boleh Blogger