How Do We Communicate in a Multicultural World? Four Styles of How Cultures Handle Conflict

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When I was in college, I thought I had the perfect roommate. She had a great sense of humor and a creative spirit. We hardly argued, and the best part was, she loved to clean! How convenient.

My roommate’s cleaning regime got more and more rigorous. She’s stressed out, I thought, this is just how she unwinds - with a can of insecticide to our roach infested cabinets.

Well that was my attitude until one day a mutual friend gently told me that my roommate had confided in him that she had no idea how to get me to contribute more to the cleaning. I felt horrible for not picking up on her cues but was also confused as to why she didn’t talk to me directly.

My roommate and I were born in different countries and I never imagined that could be the root of our problem. Our culture shapes so much of the way we interact with each other, and then when you think about language barriers and vocabulary used by different generations, its easy to see where miscommunication can happen.

Last year I was living in Europe and now I’m living in Southeast Asia. It’s a constant struggle to make sure the messages I send will be interpreted the way I mean them. Communicating in a way that feels as natural as breathing to me can really put other people off, sometimes with personal and professional ramifications.

The Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory

One of my favorite communication models I learned in a college cross-cultural psychology class was Hammer’s 2003 Intercultural Conflict Style (ICS). It completely changed the way I understand how my friends and colleagues communicate with me.

Based on my research of Hammer’s ICS model and my own cross-cultural experiences, these are my interpretations of the various communication styles posited by Hammer and his colleagues. For a more comprehensive explanation of this research visit the ICS website or read chapter 17 from the 2009 book by Hammer, Contemporary Leadership and Intercultural Competence.

The ICS model relies on two spectrums, verbal directness and emotional expressiveness. The idea is that when conflict arises, various differences among cultures can emerge and escalate the issue.

Based on the type of communication a culture promotes, various groups will fall into one of four categories: discussion, engagement, accommodation, and dynamic. These categories are quadrants on the two spectrums, so different cultures might have the same style but one is more emotionally expressive or direct than another.

Further, an individual from one group might have a different style of communication than the overall culture. For example, I was socialized to use a “discussion” style, but am slightly more emotionally expressive and scored into the “engagement” style of communication.

If you are curious about your style, you can pay to take the test on the website, but if you’re less serious just ask yourself – do you speak directly (state things explicitly) or indirectly (use context, subtle suggestions, or stories)? Are you emotionally expressive or restrictive?

Before I continue, I think it’s important to mention that we should not use this theory to generalize how someone is communicating based on their ethnic or cultural background. We need to accept that we live in a complex world, where several cultures coexist in one country and many of us have been socialized in multiple cultures.

What we can do is observe the way people are behaving, use the knowledge we have, and respond accordingly. We need to accept a healthy amount of ambiguity in communications, and know that just because there is an overall trend in one culture, does not mean that an individual will follow the pattern.

After I learned about these four different styles of communication and the ways they can lead to conflict, it made a huge difference in the way I understand social interactions. I really believe most problems are simply miscommuncations. So now when I feel frustrated or offended, I try to take a deep breath and change the way I communicate.

The Discussion Style

Cultures that are verbally direct and less emotionally expressive fall under this category. People who use this style will explore conflict through direct, rational arguments, and limit the expression of their personal feelings towards the matter.

I remember that most of the students in my psychology class fell under this category, and all of them were proud that conflict could be handled in a business like matter with little residual damage. While this is true for others who communicate the same way, how might people with another communication style perceive it?

Robotic.

Just because someone says something with a level tone won’t necessarily make the other person feel like they are understood and cared about.

When I lived in a country in northern Europe, this communication style was particularly pervasive. I remember that my expressions sometimes felt huge and overdone compared to my European friends, and that the unrestrained laughter of other Americans abroad always dominated a social space.

One of my favorite cross-cultural moments in Europe was when an American started off a conference using a conch shell horn. I will never forget contrast of the lady with the blaring horn to the reserved discussion-style Europeans politely clapping. To her credit it did get everyone’s attention, and the Europeans were thoroughly entertained and impressed by her lung capacity.

According to Hammer (2009), cultures that generally fall in the discussion category are European-American, Australian, and Northern European groups.

The Engagement Style

People with this type of communication style are highly direct and emotionally expressive. When I think about this communication style I always remember my Italian relatives waiving their hands in the air and yelling in loud volumes with zeal and gusto. One can always tell exactly what these individuals are feeling and thinking.

But while the people who utilize and the engagement communication style during a conflict may feel they are demonstrating honesty and sincerity, the intensity of this kind of communication might be overwhelming for other styles. Specifically, the words “tantrum” and “melt down” were used by my classmates describing their interpretation of the engaging individuals.

As someone with the engagement style, I always want people to know what I am feeling and thinking so there won’t be any miscommunication. But after being told that I am “reactive” I have learned to tone it down a bit.

And especially now that I moved to a country of the opposite style, I try to contain my feelings because too much emotion makes me seem out of control.

For example, I was recently invited to a rather late dinner at a local coworker’s house. I was especially tired that evening, but managed to stifle my yawns. Unfortunately, I could not deceive my hosts. Much to my embarrassment, the hosts continuously encouraged me to nap in the spare room or take a shower and “freshen up.” They then expressed ardent concern that I was driving home and suggested I stay the night.

Even though I was only moderately tired, my emotional expressiveness amplified my inner state and I appeared incompetent and out of control of my exhaustion.

From my experience, being emotionally expressive and direct has also made local people in a foreign country feel comfortable with me as a stranger. When I am smiling, laughing, and making eye contact without reserve, local people generally approach me and engage in conversation.

Hammer states that the African American community, southern Europe, Cuba, Nigeria, and Russia often contain cultures that express this type of communication style (Hammer 2009).

The Accommodation Style

Individuals who score low on directness and low on emotional expressiveness have the accommodation style.

People who use this type of communication during conflict intend to be sensitive to people’s feelings and considerate of others’ perspectives. They use other cues than direct speech to get their point across, like body language, tone, and words rooted in context that allows for a more nuanced approach.

But for people using other communication styles, accommodating individuals can come off as elusive and misleading. They just want to know what accommodating individuals are feeling or thinking about a problem.

It’s important to note that just because communications are indirect does not mean the message is unclear. Interpretations of meaning are simply based on context, and for everyone socialized in that culture, signals are generally received and understood without misinterpretation.

However for direct communicators, this can be really confusing and often people don’t understand why everything is so ambiguous. But for indirect communicators, it IS clear. They pick up on the context and get the message, it’s just that direct communicators were not observant enough to catch it.

I was surprised to hear that my friends that fell under the accommodating communication style sometimes found direct communicators paternalistic. If someone was too direct, it’s like “I understand you perfectly, you don’t need to explain like I’m five.”

As an individual who is both direct and emotionally expressive living in Southeast Asia, I need to observe and consider various interpretations before I react. For example, sometimes my international coworkers will say there is no need for me to come to a particular meeting or activity.

At first I was offended and thought they didn’t value my contributions. But after talking with my other American coworkers who had experienced the same thing and asking people who knew the culture well, I realized that my time was valued by my local colleagues, and they didn’t want me to feel bored if the topic was irrelevant to my duties.

Native Americans of the United States, Somalia, Japan, Mexico, and Thai cultures are usually in this category of communication (Hammer 2009).

The Dynamic Style

Individuals who use a dynamic style are emotionally expressive and less direct. Essentially, people in this category can express the intensity of their attitude towards something without having to say it. Stories, metaphors, and humor might be used to de-escalate the situation while expressing feelings. Hammer further states that these individuals might engage the assistance of others to help resolve the conflict.

However, while strategies are effective for keeping the peace in dynamic cultures, other communication styles can feel bewildered by the display of emotion with lack of explanation.

My college roommate was socialized to use the dynamic style of communication. As a person with the engagement style, I picked up on her emotions of stress and anxiety, but totally missed her indirect communication methods. To keep the peace, she recruited a trusted friend to help, and the problem was consequently solved.

Cultures in Arab Middle Eastern countries and Pakistan can have this communication style (Hammer 2009).

My Reflections

What I have realized from living in multicultural communities in the United States and my experiences abroad is that rather than interpreting a situation in a way that comes naturally to me, I need to consider the intent of the other person.

I had a professor who always said that we should “give the best interpretation possible” to what people say and do and try to understand what people really mean.

Our world is becoming more globalized and our communities more diverse. Don’t let cultural differences become a barrier to communication and friendship, take the time to listen, learn, and build unity.

References:

Hammer, M.R. (2009). Solving Problems and Resolving Conflict Using the Intercultural Conflict Style Model and Inventory. In M.A. Moodian (Ed.). Contemporary Leadership and Intercultural Competence (Ch.17, pp. 219-232). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.