Conflict and Culture: How Different Cultures Disagree

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Culture Map" by Erin Meyer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do different cultures approach conflict? Does the culture you come from tend to express disagreement openly or tacitly?

Conflict and disagreement are necessary realities in the business world. But the rules for appropriate disagreement vary across cultures. In discussing conflict and culture, cultural communication expert Erin Meyer divides disagreement styles into two extremes: “confrontational” and “avoids confrontation.”

In this article, we’ll look at why it can be so hard to determine where a culture falls on the disagreement spectrum and present some strategies you can use to ensure that disagreements don’t harm your business relationships.

Open Disagreement

According to Meyer, cultures that disagree openly view disagreement as good for the group. A free exchange of ideas allows for greater innovations, and disagreements are a necessary part of that process. `

So in these cultures, people disagree with you frankly and publicly. It’s not unusual for a strong debate to break out in a meeting.

These open disagreements aren’t viewed as personal attacks—indeed, they have little impact on your personal relationship at all. That’s because in these cultures, the person is independent of the idea. Just because you disagree with somebody vehemently doesn’t mean you disapprove of them overall. 

Western and Northern European countries tend to disagree openly.

(Shortform note: In her chapter on trust, Meyer discusses how cultures that value cognitive trust do so partly because they have reliable legal systems they can turn to if something goes wrong. This reasoning may have implications on disagreement styles as well. If damaging your personal relationship doesn’t strongly affect your business dealings anyway, more open disagreement would likely be acceptable. In support of this, many cultures that disagree openly also develop trust cognitively. But not all: For example, the French are very confrontational but lie squarely in the middle of the trusting spectrum.)

How Cultures That Disagree Openly Develop

Meyer suggests that just as the Hegelian method used in the French educational system influenced how they persuade people in business settings, it also influenced how they disagree. In other words, the French disagree openly in business settings because that’s what they were taught to do in school.

(Shortform note: Meyer doesn’t explicitly cite the Hegelian influence on education as a factor in why countries other than France also disagree openly. However, many other countries that practice theoretical thinking (Germany, Italy, and Spain, for example) also disagree confrontationally. This suggests that these countries also disagree openly due to Hegel’s influence on their educational systems. This point is supported by the fact that the Anglo-Saxon countries which practice empirical thinking all lie in the middle of the disagreement spectrum.)

Disagreement-Avoidant Cultures 

In some cultures, openly disagreeing with someone will harm your relationship—sometimes seriously and potentially to the point of irreparability. 

In these cultures, Meyer states, disagreement is considered to be bad for the group. 

Furthermore, in these cultures, disagreeing with someone implies that you disapprove of them as a person. In many disagreement-avoidant cultures, your image is extremely important. If that image is disrupted in any way, it’s considered very embarrassing. To disagree publicly with someone in these cultures is to suggest that this person is trying to project a false image of themselves to the world. As such, openly disagreeing with someone amounts to a personal attack.

(Shortform note: People of all cultures value their image, but how an image disruption affects you personally varies based on what culture you’re in, according to Meyer. Meyer neglects to attribute this idea to Stella Ting-Toomey, who developed face-negotiation theory in 1985. Ting-Toomey was the first to propose that all cultures care about their ‘face,’ or image, but use different behaviors to protect or attack it.)

This doesn’t not mean that disagreement never occurs in these cultures. But if people express disagreement, they do so subtly and privately.

Asian countries tend to be disagreement-avoidant.

How Disagreement-Avoidant Cultures Develop

Meyer sees Confucius’s ideals about group harmony as a major influence on disagreement-avoidant Asian countries.

In Confucianism, there are five fundamental relationships that form the foundation of societal order. Each relationship comes with guidelines about how you need to behave towards each other, and not behaving the way you’re supposed to leads to the breakdown of society. So to disagree openly with someone is to suggest they’re not being true to their prescribed role—and this carries a far greater taboo in Asian cultures due to the Confucian influence.

Factors That Complicate Determining How a Culture Disagrees: Disagreement vs Emotional Displays

In discussing conflict and culture, Meyer also explains the factors that complicate determining how a culture disagrees.

You might assume that cultures that disagree openly are equally open with their emotions, and disagreement-avoidant cultures are emotionally reserved. This tends to be the case, according to Meyer, but it’s not a hard-and-fast rule. This is because cultures are governed by what psychologists refer to as “cultural display rules.” These are norms within a culture that dictate how it’s appropriate to express your emotions. 

In other words, all of us express emotions in our faces and mannerisms—but how often and how intensely is dictated by culture. 

Meyer states that the key to evaluating where a culture lies on the disagreement spectrum is to ask yourself: How much would openly disagreeing with someone harm your relationship? Ignore how emotionally open they are. 

Meyer uses a quadrant to visually express the relationships between how cultures disagree and how they display their emotions. However, we found this unnecessarily confusing. So instead, we’ll simply discuss the three main reasons Meyer posits for why a culture’s level of comfort with disagreement is not always related to how comfortable they are with emotional displays. 

Reason #1: Debates are intellectual, not emotional.

Some cultures, like Germany and the Netherlands, are very reserved but very comfortable with open confrontation.

According to Meyer, this is because these cultures don’t view disagreement as an emotional expression. Rather, debates and disagreement are purely intellectual exercises.

People from these cultures view robust disagreement as a necessary tool that allows them to deepen their understanding of the topic at hand. It’s not considered emotional.

(Shortform note: If you get emotional during debates, arguing with someone who is seemingly emotionally unaffected during the debate may be frustrating. Try referring to yourself in the third person. This self-distancing allows you to regulate your emotions so that you can keep your cool.)

Reason #2: Some culture’s emotional displays are widely misinterpreted.

All cultures have different rules governing acceptable emotional displays. So sometimes, these rules clash.

Meyer specifically notes that many Latin American and Arabic cultures speak at high volumes and make many physical gestures in everyday interactions. So if you come from a culture that prefers lower volumes and is less physically expressive, you may see fighting when there is none and conclude that these cultures disagree openly.

But these cultures are actually disagreement-avoidant. It’s just that they display emotions differently than you do. (Shortform note: In fact, the loud, high voices that connote anger in many Western cultures are a sign of sincerity in Arab cultures. Knowing and imitating the cultural display rules of the culture you’re working in are especially essential when they differ dramatically from yours. Keep in mind that your own actions will be interpreted differently, too. According to Richard Lewis’s When Cultures Collide, cultural display rules affected the first Gulf War: Saddam Hussein didn’t take George H. W. Bush’s threats seriously because he spoke too quietly.) 

​​Reason #3: Some cultures express disagreement differently based on the relationship. 

According to Meyer, China and Korea disagree with you differently based on how close you are.

Meyer uses the terms in-group and out-group, both derived from social psychology, to define these relationships. An in-group is a group you identify as belonging to and whose members accept you. An out-group is a group you don’t belong to.

If you’re in the in-group in these cultures, the Confucian rules for relationships apply, so people avoid disagreeing with you.

But if you’re in the out-group, according to Meyer, there are almost no Confucian rules governing your relationship. As such, open disagreement is not considered a threat to societal order and is justified. 

Meyer suggests that the Chinese will have especially open and sometimes hostile confrontations with the outgroup, which she attributes to a competitive environment fostered by the country’s large population. Meyer doesn’t make the link between these explicit, but it’s arguable that where there’s more competition, there’s more pressure to succeed. In this situation, you’re likely far pickier about who you conduct business with, so it makes sense that you’d disagree more with strangers. It might also explain why the Chinese value personal trust highly, if they interact so differently with strangers than they do with people they know. 

(Shortform note: The ingroup/outgroup bias may be particularly strong in these cultures due to their racial homogeneity: South Koreans are 99% ethnically Korean, while 91.11% of China is Han Chinese. The “familiar face overgeneralization hypothesis” suggests that we have an “own-race positivity bias” partly because we naturally react better to people we’re familiar with. So it’s possible that these countries’ lack of other races increase their distrust of the outgroup.)

Strategies to Use in Disagreement-Avoidant Countries

Consider not attending the meeting if you’re the boss. In some countries, people are comfortable expressing their ideas openly amongst their peers but not amongst higher-status individuals.

Tell people what you’re going to ask them in advance so they can prepare their opinions. Emphasize that you want to hear their original thoughts.

Use techniques that help separate the idea from its original creator. Meyer specifically recommends brainstorming: When many people ideate simultaneously in a limited amount of time, it’s hard to remember who thought of what. Submitting each written idea anonymously can also further separate the idea from its creator.

Adjust your language. Use weakeners (words that mitigate your message, like “slightly” or “maybe”), and avoid strengtheners (s that emphasize your message, like “absolutely.”)

If you’re the boss, state your opinion last. If your subordinate doesn’t know what your opinion is, they don’t know that they’re disagreeing with you, so they might feel more comfortable expressing their opinions honestly. However, keep in mind that your subordinates will be looking for subtle cues to try and guess your opinion. (Shortform note: You can keep your face neutral by following strategies like using a mantra.)

Strategies to Use in Countries That Disagree Openly

Don’t try to disagree more forcefully than you’re used to. Every culture has subtle rules of etiquette that govern what’s considered appropriate disagreement and what’s not, and you’re likely unaware of them. Emulating a disagreement style you’re not used to can backfire and make you sound overly aggressive or offensive. (Shortform note: You may recognize this strategy: Meyer uses the same reasoning to explain why you shouldn’t provide more direct feedback than you’re used to.) 

Remind yourself that it’s not personal. Just because something is aggressive in your culture doesn’t mean it’s aggressive everywhere. Reminding yourself of this throughout your disagreement can help temper your reactions, so that you can converse calmly with a colleague instead of reacting angrily to them.

Conflict and Culture: How Different Cultures Disagree

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  • The eight axes you can use as a framework to analyze cultural differences
  • How to better relate to those of another culture to accomplish business goals
  • How the Vikings have more gender equality than we see today

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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