Managing conflicts – an intercultural approach

In the intercultural field, we all know about “high-context” and “low-context cultures”, theories defined by anthropologist Edward T. Hall who helps us to understand which powerful effect culture has on routine communication. According to him, “in a high-context culture, many things are left unsaid, letting the culture explain. Words and word choice become very important in higher-context communication, since a few words can communicate a complex message very effectively to an in-group (…), while in a lower-context culture, the communicator needs to be much more explicit and the value of a single word is less important.”[1]

High-context cultures would include Asia, Africa, South America and much of the Middle East; low-context cultures are more or less found in North America and Western Europe.[2]

Applied to conflicts or simply “dealing with difference” it becomes very obvious how different the negotiation and mediation styles and skills have to be when addressing issues in one context versus the other. “High-context communication tends to be more indirect and more formal.  Flowery language, humility, and elaborate apologies are typical.” Whereas in the low-context culture, “(…) people value logic, facts, and directness.  Solving a problem means lining up the facts and evaluating one after another.  Decisions are based on fact rather than intuition.”

Interestingly, very often even with people from the ‘same’ context, meaning Western Europe and North America for example (low-context), huge differences appear as to how conflicts and difficult situations are dealt with and managed. It becomes even more tricky, when the people around the table speak one language (English for example) but have in fact different mother tongues and own different passports (or residencies in different countries). Even though these people might be in a similar context, their “(…) communication style difference of intellectual and relational engagement provides a rich area for misinterpretation (…)” and their level of intercultural sensitivity, meaning “(…) the ability to experience cultural difference (…)” might also be a complete different one.[3]

An interesting study from 2008, entitled “Workplace conflict and how businesses can harness it to thrive” whereby workers attitude about conflict were analyzed questioning 5,000 full-time employees in nine countries around Europe and the Americas (Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States), found out that conflict “(…) has a bounty of positive potential, which if harnessed correctly, can stimulate progress in ways harmony often cannot.”

Interesting thoughts indeed… It shows once again how intercultural competence, sensitivity and related skills are necessary in order to address the issues of the 21st century where people are more connected, mobile and dependent on each other than ever!

[2] Compare also with



5 thoughts on “Managing conflicts – an intercultural approach

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  2. Alice Keys

    American communications are more direct and to the point (low-context) than French (higher low-context). It seems there are so many simple (and unstated) things in France I’m just supposed to understand from cultural context. For example: When I give unexpected coins (inconvenient) to a cashier, she will simply stare at them in her hands rather than saying anything or giving them back. I have to catch on to what she’s doing, apologize and take them back and give her others. And the way one uses eye contact in France is much less direct than America. I’m learning things every day. Thanks for your tips and pointers. They give me ways to think about what I’m learning since I moved to France four months ago.

    • Jenny Ebermann (bxljenny) Post author

      Dear Alice, it is great to hear from you and to get your perspective! Thanks for this excellent example… you must have encountered many more since your arrival in France! Maybe you want to write a guest post for me speaking about your experiences in managing conflicts in France as an American and your reflections about it. It would provide for a very interesting and insightful case study from which many people I am sure could learn of! Let me know 🙂 Have an excellent weekend, Jenny

      • Alice Keys

        What a great idea. I’ll give it some thought. There are certainly ways in which I’ve had to adjust my attitude and responses here that go way beyond learning the language. It’s helped when I’ve been able to get someone to explain to me what happened. Many times I go one and never sort things out completely.

        Keep writing. Your information is very useful.
        have a great weekend.

      • Jenny Ebermann (bxljenny) Post author

        Thank you Alice, I am happy to respond to you should you again encounter difficult situations! Just write to me or talk to me over skype: jenny.ebermann. As for the guest post: let me know!
        Have an excellent Sunday!

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