Managing Intercultural Conflict Effectively


Stella Ting-Toomey & John G. Oetzel

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  • Communicating Effectively in Multicultural Contexts

    Series Editors: William B. Gudykunst and Stella Ting-Toomey

    Department of Speech Communication California State University, Fullerton

    The books in this series are designed to help readers communicate effectively in various multicultural contexts. Authors of the volumes in the series translate relevant communication theories to provide readable and comprehensive descriptions of the various multicultural contexts. Each volume contains specific suggestions for how readers can communicate effectively with members of different cultures and/or ethnic groups in the specific contexts covered in the volume. The volumes should appeal to people interested in developing multicultural awareness or improving their communication skills, as well as anyone who works in a multicultural setting.

    Volumes in this series

      • William B. Gudykunst and Tsukasa Nishida
      • Richard W. Brislin and Tomoko Yoshida
      • Gary L. Kreps and Elizabeth N. Kunimoto
    • MULTICULTURAL PUBLIC RELATIONS: A Social-Interpretive Approach
      • Stephen P. Banks
      • Ge Gao and Stella Ting-Toomey
      • Stella Ting-Toomey and John G. Oetzel


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    List of Figures and Tables

      List of Figures
    • Figure 2.1 An Intercultural Conflict Episode: A Culture-Based Situational Conflict Model 29
    • Figure 2.2 A Five-Style Conflict Grid: A Western Approach 47
    • Figure 2.3 An Eight-Style Conflict Grid: An Intercultural Approach 48
    • Figure 2.4 A Self-Construal Typological Model 49
    • Figure 3.1 Interpersonal Conflict Attributions: Win-Lose versus Win-Win Response Tendencies 72
    • Figure 3.2 Intimate Conflict Modes: Four Styles 84
    • Figure 4.1 Small-Group Interaction: A Systems Model 105
    • Figure 5.1 Organizational Conflict Management: Four Approaches 141
      List of Tables
    • Table 2.1 Win-Lose Versus Win-Win Conflict Orientation: Core Characteristics 61
    • Table 6.1 Intercultural Conflict Management: Two Approaches 191


    This book grew out of our own search for a culture-sensitive text to teach intercultural conflict at the undergraduate level. Although there exist several excellent conflict texts on interpersonal conflict, there is a scarcity of texts that deal directly with the theme of intercultural conflict process. Intercultural conflict process often starts with different culture-based expectations of how a misunderstanding should be handled. If the different cultural parties continue to engage in ethnocentric ways of approaching the disagreement or misunderstanding, the initial cultural collusion can easily spiral into a complex, polarized conflict situation. Conflict is indeed a cultural challenge and, simultaneously, an opportunity for us to learn about diverse approaches in framing a conflict situation and in honing our constructive conflict management skills.

    Unfortunately, as we searched for a sound conflict text that includes a strong cultural perspective in examining a variety of conflict issues and contexts, we came up short. This void led us to work on this book project for the past several years. Based on our combined research interest in intercultural-intimate conflict and small-group/organizational conflict, we were able to work collaboratively to distill the best ideas in our own thinking and present them to you.

    We have written this book for individuals who would like to better understand the intercultural conflict process. We believe in the importance of incorporating theoretically based research work in the text. We intend the text to be used in conflict management classes at the undergraduate (or beginning graduate) level or as a supplemental text to existing intercultural or interpersonal communication classes. Thus, we have attempted to write in a straightforward, accessible style. We believe that in a good undergraduate conflict text, the theoretical and practical aspects of intercultural conflict management should blend nicely together. Without a coherent theory, the book may consist of scattered ideas in different chapters. Without practice, the theory may stay on a highly abstract level with no concrete guidance or direction to reinforce the theoretical ideas. In writing this book, we worked toward a balanced approach in synthesizing theories and research-based studies with recommended conflict skills and practice. The book should serve as a useful resource for intercultural professionals and conflict practitioners who are interested in understanding the intercultural conflict process in more depth.

    This book is organized into six chapters. Chapter 1 presents four practical reasons for why we should pay special attention to intercultural conflict. Terms such as culture and intercultural conflict are defined. The chapter ends with seven key assumptions about the study of intercultural conflict and highlights the importance of developing systems consciousness in mindfully managing intercultural conflict. Chapter 2 maps out a new model, the culture-based situational conflict model, which consists of four components: culture-based primary orientation factors, situational features, conflict process factors, and conflict competence criteria and outcomes. The model emphasizes the importance of understanding conflict from a cultural variability perspective. Cultural values such as individualism-collectivism and power distance shape our initial expectations, attitudes, emotional reactions, face concerns, and behaviors toward approaching or avoiding a conflict. Concurrently, situational features such as perceived ingroup-outgroup boundaries (e.g., ethnocentrism and prejudice), relationship parameters, conflict goal assessments, and conflict intensity serve as mediating variables between the primary orientation factors on one hand and the conflict process factors on the other. The chapter ends with a discussion of four conflict competence criteria: appropriateness, effectiveness, satisfaction, and productivity. Chapter 3 extends the culture-based situational conflict model with concrete examples and critical incidents concerning intercultural-intimate conflicts. More specifically, situational features such as ethnocentric lenses and biased interpersonal attributions, prejudice and racism issues, and different intimate conflict goals are discussed. Process factors such as intimate conflict expressions and relational conflict responses are explained. The chapter ends with a set of practical guidelines for dealing with intercultural-intimate conflict effectively.

    Chapter 4 addresses the complex topic of intercultural small-group conflict. The reasons for the complexity of small group conflict are probed. From a systems perspective, group input factors such as culturally diverse small-group composition, social identity and proportional representation, and cultural value patterns are explained. Ample dialogue examples are used to illustrate the various frictions and misunderstandings that can arise in small group conflict process. Finally, four practical suggestions are proposed for managing conflict constructively in a culturally diverse group. Chapter 5 underscores conflict problems between managers and employees in multinational and domestic diversity organizations. A new model, the organizational conflict management model, is used to highlight four primary approaches in framing a conflict process. The four approaches are based on combined individualism-collectivism and small/large power distance value patterns. These four approaches are impartial, status-achievement, benevolent, and communal. Rich workplace examples are used to illustrate these different organizational conflict approaches. The chapter ends with a set of practical guidelines for managing conflicts between managers and employees in diverse organizations. Finally, Chapter 6 concludes with the motif of intercultural conflict competence. Three conflict competence dimensions—knowledge, mindfulness, and constructive conflict management skills—are identified. Mindfulness is viewed as the integrative hook that links culture-based knowledge with constructive conflict management skills. Altogether, 10 constructive conflict management skills are suggested: mindful observation, mindful listening, mindful reframing, identity validation, facework management, productive power balancing, collaborative dialogue, problem-solving skills, transcendent discourse, and interaction adaptability.

    With mindful commitment, we believe conflict participants can transform themselves into collaborative dialogue negotiators in managing many culture-based conflict differences. With cultural sensitivity and committed practice, we believe many intercultural conflict situations can be managed competently. The book ends with an appendix that contains a multinational research project report and factor analysis results. The factor analysis results are scales that can be used to measure face and facework-related conflict behaviors. Our intention is to make those facework scales accessible for students and researchers who are interested in furthering their work on multinational or multiethnic facework and conflict styles. For conflict students who are interested in tracking some of the original sources of our work, and other preeminent researchers’ work, these sources are listed in the references.

    Six features distinguish this conflict book from others. First, this book offers a new model, a culture-based situational conflict model, to serve as a map and guide to help you in understanding and explaining the culture-based and situational-based factors that enter into any intercultural conflict episode. Second, this is one of the first books that clearly emphasizes the role of culture and how culture serves as the primary imprint in our habitual conflict responses. This is also one of the first books to thread through the discussion of culture in a variety of conflict contexts (e.g., intimate conflict, small group conflict, and organizational conflict). Third, although the book is theoretically directed, it is also a down-to-earth practical book that contains ample examples, conflict dialogues, and critical incidents to illustrate the complexity of intercultural conflict interaction. Fourth, specific guidelines at the end of each chapter and the competence-based perspective in the last chapter underscore the pragmatic orientation of the entire book. Fifth, the book is a multidisciplinary text that draws from the research work of a variety of disciplines such as cross-cultural psychology, social psychology, sociology, marital and family studies, international management, and communication. As such, readers gain a broad yet integrative perspective in assessing intercultural conflict situations. Last, the book is written in a clear, easy-to-understand writing style. The various figures and tables should help readers grasp the materials because of easy-to-digest summary formats.


    Writing this book was an exhilarating and exhausting task. We are indebted to many individuals who encouraged and motivated us to bring this book into fruition. First and foremost, we want to thank Bill Gudykunst for his unflagging support throughout the writing of this book. His thoughtful comments and insights improve the “big picture” of the book. We also want to thank Margaret Seawell, the communication editor at Sage, who shepherded the book from its manuscript form to a beautiful, well-polished book. We appreciate her gracious support and perseverance in seeing this book through to the end. In addition, we express our appreciation to Amy Kazilsky, copy editor for Sage, for her meticulous editing of our manuscript. We also want to thank our colleagues at the California State University at Fullerton and the University of New Mexico for providing a collegial environment in which to conduct our scholarly work. We want to acknowledge the “voices” of our students whom we are privileged to teach and from whom we continue to learn. Their input and questioning helped us to refine the many ideas presented in the book. We also want to acknowledge the help of Peter Lee, who assisted in the preparation of the figures in this book. Individually, there are several people in our personal and professional lives to whom we would like to express our acknowledgments.

    John: I would like first to thank my partner and wife, Keri, for providing me with love, caring, and continuous support throughout the writing of this book. I also want to thank Stella for inviting me to work on this book with her. I have learned tremendously in my collaborative work with her, and she has continued to serve as a great mentor and supportive friend to me. I would also like to thank several individuals who reviewed sections of the manuscript: Curtiss Bailey, Valerie Beaubeau, Martha Chew, Britta Limary, Tomoko Masumoto, Yoshi Miike, Frank Perez, Pratibha Shukla, and Jan Woomavoya. I would also like to extend my special thanks to C. J. Ondek and Kersti Tyson, who read an entire draft of the book. I appreciate their timely feedback and invaluable suggestions.

    Stella: I would like to express my appreciation to my husband Charles and son Adrian for their good humor and warm support throughout the writing of this book. Their “lighthearted” loving spirit uplifted the long hours working on this book project. I want to thank John for his commitment and patience in collaborating and writing this book with me. His professionalism and keen intellect made the collaboration an enjoyable, give-and-take learning experience. I also want to extend my special thanks to Annette Bow, Leeva Chung, Atsuko Kurogi, Peter Lee, Ramona Rose, and Jessica Tan for their constant encouragement and good cheer throughout the development of this manuscript. Finally, I want to thank California State University at Fullerton, for granting me a one-semester sabbatical leave to complete the book.

    In writing this book, we have also learned more about our own culture-based conflict approaches and conflict styles. We were also made aware of the sustained commitment and effort needed to instill change and transformation in our own conflict habits and tendencies. We hope that by reading this book, some of the conflict concepts and skills will resonate with you and that you are able to creatively translate facets of the knowledge and skills into mindful conflict practice.

  • Appendix: Measures of Face Concerns and Facework Behaviors in Four National Cultures

    Over the years, there have been numerous studies examining facework and conflict styles across cultures. Many of these studies (e.g., Cocroft & Ting-Toomey, 1994; Oetzel, 1998a, 1998b; Ting-Toomey et al., 1991, 2000; Trubisky et al., 1991) have used the face-negotiation theory (Ting-Toomey, 1988), which provided a strong foundation to the culture-based situational conflict model we presented in Chapter 2. One limitation of prior research using face-negotiation theory is that face concerns were often not measured directly. Rather, they were assumed to be the link between cultural variability and conflict styles (for an updated measure on cross-ethnic conflict styles, see Ting-Toomey et al., 2000). An exception to this limitation is Ting-Toomey et al.'s (1991) study, which did measure self- and other-face. However, the measure used (Baxter, 1984) focused only on a narrow range of face concerns. We felt that measures or survey instruments of face concerns and facework patterns should include a wider range of cross-cultural face concerns and facework styles. Therefore, we sought to create original measures that can be used by researchers interested in face concerns.

    In this section, we describe a large, cross-cultural study of face concerns and facework behaviors in four nations: China, Germany, Japan, and the United States. The data from this study were used to confirm the validity of several research measures of face concerns and facework behaviors. These measures also have applications for intercultural trainers and teachers of intercultural communication and conflict. We begin by describing the data collection procedures and then discuss the results of the factor analyses.

    Data Collection Procedures

    There were 912 participants who responded to the questionnaire used in the current study. The participants reported about a recent conflict they had with another party. A few of these participants were excluded from analysis because they were not from the national cultures under investigation (n = 20). There were 238 Chinese, 226 Germans, 214 Japanese, and 210 U.S. Americans. The respondents were students recruited from a medium-sized engineering university in China, a small technical university in Germany, a large university in Japan, and a large university in the southwestern United States. The average age of the participants was 21.54 (SD = 3.76).

    In the Chinese sample, 63% were female and 37% male. The average age was 19.82 (SD = 1.12). There were 57 who reported a conflict with an equal status and close person, 62 who reported a conflict with an equal status and distant person, 61 who reported a conflict with a higher status and close person, and 58 who reported a conflict with a higher status and distant person. In the German sample, 55% were female and 45% male. The average age was 23.50 (SD = 2.95). There were 61 in the equal/close, 52 in the equal/distant, 65 in the higher/close, and 48 in the higher/distant cells. In the Japanese sample, 62% were female and 38% were male. The average age was 19.96 (SD = 1.97). There were 56 in the equal/close, 53 in the equal/distant, 53 in the higher/close, and 52 in the higher/distant cells. In the U.S. American sample, 63% were female, 35% were male, and 2% were unreported data. The ethnic backgrounds included 46% European Americans, 24% Latin Americans, 10% of mixed ancestry, 9% Asian Americans, 3% Native Americans, 2% African Americans, and 4% unreported data. The average age was 23.55 (SD = 5.58). There were 59 in the equal/close, 47 in the equal/distant, 50 in the higher/close, and 54 in the higher/distant cells.


    A questionnaire format was used to investigate several objectives (including identifying categories of face concerns and facework behaviors). The respondents were asked to recall a conflict with a person who fit a set of criteria. All respondents were asked to recall someone of same-sex and same ethnic/cultural group. Two variables were manipulated in the questionnaire—status and level of intimacy. For status, participants were asked to recall a conflict with someone who is equal status or higher status. For level of intimacy, the respondents were asked to recall a conflict with someone to whom they were very close or not very close. National culture was measured with a single item (i.e., what is your country of permanent residence).

    Self-construal was measured with 20 items from Gudykunst et al.'s (1996) instrument. Ten items measured independent self-construal, and 10 items measured interdependent self-construal. The validity of the self-construal scales is based on findings that the independence items correlate with individualistic values, whereas the interdependence items correlate with collectivistic values. In addition, the scales have been found to be reliable with Cronbach alphas ranging from .73 to .85 across four cultures (Gudykunst et al., 1996). Face concerns were measured with 34 items written specifically for this study. The items were designed to measure self-other-, and mutual-face concerns. Facework behaviors were measured with 87 items written for this study or modified from other instruments (Ting-Toomey et al., 2000). The items were designed to capture more fully the 13 facework categories discovered in a previous study (Oetzel et al., in press). The 13 categories and brief descriptions are

    • third party—seeking an outside party to help resolve the conflict;
    • apologizing for behavior;
    • expressing how one is feeling;
    • defending—standing up for one's opinions and persuading others to accept these opinions;
    • private discussion—avoiding a public confrontation;
    • giving in—accommodating the other's wishes;
    • remaining calm during the conflict;
    • integrating—behaviors used to join together perspectives of the parties;
    • pretending that the conflict does not exist;
    • consider the other—listening to the other person to demonstrate respect for him or her;
    • direct/passive aggression;
    • avoiding the person or the issue;
    • compromising points in order to resolve the issue.

    All of the items (except national culture) were measured with a five-point Likert-type scale ranging from five (strongly agree) to one (strongly disagree). A team of researchers from different cultures collaborated to create the measures of face concerns and facework behaviors. The team consisted of a Chinese who now lives in the United States, one Japanese who lives in the United States, one Japanese who is studying in the United States, and one European American.


    The questionnaire asked the participants to recall a conflict in one of the four situations. Conflict was defined for the participants as any intense disagreement between two parties that involves incompatible goals, needs, or viewpoints. The participants were asked to remember a particular conflict and respond to a series of items about the conflict. The questionnaire was laid out in the following format: (a) self-construal items, (b) face concern items, (c) face behavior items, (d) items describing the conflict, (e) power distance items (for another purpose), and (f) demographic information.

    The questionnaire was written in English. Then, the English questionnaire was translated and retranslated into Chinese, Japanese, and German to ensure conceptual equivalence. All participants completed the questionnaire in their native language. Participants were recruited through undergraduate courses and many were given extra credit for participating. The questionnaire was self-administered and required approximately 30 minutes to complete. Participants completed the questionnaire on their own time and returned it to the researchers.

    Results of Panculture Factor Analyses

    The data were submitted to several factor analyses in order to understand the structure and confirm the validity of the measures. We completed separate factor analyses for face concerns and facework behaviors. We used the following procedures for each of the factor analyses. First, all data were standardized within culture. Second, the data for face concerns and facework behaviors were submitted to a principal components factor analysis with equamax rotation because of the expected correlation among factors. Third, the criteria for interpreting factors were (a) the primary loading had to be at least .5, (b) the secondary loading had to be at least .2 less than the primary loading, and (c) a factor needed to have at least three items with sufficient reliability (at least .60 Cronbach's alpha).

    The first factor analysis was for face concerns. Three factors accounting for 42.8% of the variance were discovered. The first factor was composed of 11 items, accounted for 17.48% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 9.13. The items focus predominately on the concern for the other person's poise, pride, face, and credibility. The factor was labeled other-face concern (α = .87). The second factor consisted of four items, accounted for 13.26% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 3.73. The items focus on a concern for the relationship and having peace in the interaction. This factor was labeled mutual-face concern (α = .77). The third factor was composed of seven items, accounted for 12.06% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 1.70. The items measure the concern for an individual's own image, dignity, and poise. This factor was labeled self-face concern (α = .80). Table A.1 at the end of this appendix displays the factor loadings for each of the items.

    The second factor analysis was for facework behaviors. Eleven factors accounting for 46.38% of the variance were discovered. Table A.2 at the end of this appendix displays the factor loadings for the specific items. The first factor consisted of nine items, accounted for 5.64% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 11.67. The items measure the degree to which a person tries to insult, hurt, or ridicule another person. The factor was labeled aggression (α = .89). The second factor consisted of eight items, accounted for 5.38% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 8.21. The items focus on behaviors that attempt to resolve a conflict through compromising or integrating viewpoints. The factor was labeled problem-solve (α = .89). The third factor consisted of eight items, accounted for 4.71% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 7.37. These items focus on “standing one's ground” and trying to persuade the other person to change his or her mind. Defend was the label for this factor (α = .82).

    The fourth factor had six items, accounted for 4.50% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 3.35. The items measure the degree of sensitivity, attentiveness, and listening shown toward the other person. We labeled this factor respect (α = .79). The fifth factor was composed of five items, accounted for 4.32% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 2.48. The items focus on apologizing for behavior during the conflict, and thus we labeled it apologize (? = .82). The sixth factor consisted of five items, accounted for 3.98% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 2.15. The items focus on the downplaying the conflict and acting as if the conflict does not exist. The label for this factor is pretend (α = .75).

    The seventh factor had five items, accounted for 3.96% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 1.89. The items emphasize the desire to have another person intervene in the conflict. Hence, we labeled it third party (α = .81). The eighth factor consisted of four items, accounted for 3.73% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 1.76. The items measure the amount of direct expression of feelings during the conflict. The factor was labeled express (α = .70). The ninth factor consisted of five items, accounted for 3.53% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 1.56. The items focus on trying to maintain composure during conflict and not getting angry. We labeled this factor remain calm (α = .68).

    The tenth factor had five items, accounted for 3.32% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 1.46. The items emphasize the desire to avoid an argument in public. We labeled the factor private discussion (α = .64). The eleventh factor consisted of three items, accounted for 3.29% of the variance, and had an eigenvalue of 1.38. The items measure accommodating or giving in during the conflict. The factor was labeled give in (α = .69).

    The results of the panculture factor analysis demonstrate that face concerns and facework behaviors can be measured consistently across the four cultures of study. The items for face concerns measure three distinct factors: self-, other-, and mutual-face. These are consistent with expectations of prior theoretical research (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998). Each of these measures, furthermore, had good reliabilities for each of the four cultures of study. Thus, this instrument is useful for researchers and facilitators interested in measuring the level of face concerns. The items for facework behaviors measure 11 distinct factors. This discovery is important because it demonstrates a wide variety of behaviors that were used to manage face during conflict. Most prior research has examined a limited range of facework behavior. The majority of the facework dimensions had good reliabilities. However, more collaborative research effort on a global level is needed to test the cross-cultural validity of the facework measurements. Future researchers may want to test these newly developed facework measures in a diverse range of problematic facework situations, and within a diverse range of ethnic communities and cultures.

    Table A.1 Pancultural Factor Loadings for Face Concerns

    Table A.2 Pancultural Factor Loadings for Facework Behaviors


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    About the Authors

    Stella Ting-Toomey, Ph.D., is Professor of Speech Communication at California State University at Fullerton. She is the author and editor of 12 books, most recently Communicating Across Cultures (1999) and Communicating Effectively With the Chinese (coauthored, 1998). She teaches courses in interpersonal conflict management, intercultural communication theory, and intercultural communication training. She is the creator of conflict face-negotiation theory. Her research interests focus on testing and refining the conflict face-negotiation theory and the cultural/ethnic identity-negotiation theory. She has held major leadership roles in international communication associations and has served on numerous editorial boards. She is an experienced trainer in the area of transcultural competence issues and has lectured widely throughout the United States, Asia, and Europe on the theme of mindful conflict management.

    John G. Oetzel, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico. He teaches courses in intercultural, group, and organizational communication, as well as research methods in the Department of Communication and Journalism. His research interests focus on investigating communication in culturally diverse groups and organizations and understanding how to effectively manage conflict in these contexts. His work has appeared in journals such as Human Communication Research, Management Communication Quarterly, Small Group Research, Communication Reports, and the International Journal of Intercultural Relations.

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