Issues that cause conflict

Cross-cultural misunderstandings or conflict may arise whenever there are cultural differences. The following are some potential causes or situations in which conflicts or misunderstandings can happen:

  • misunderstandings or conflict between different nationalities, religious or ethnic groups
  • cultural ignorance and insensitivity
  • lack of awareness of different societal lifestyle practices
  • differences in cultural practice
  • differences in perception of illness and treatment
  • miscommunication and misinterpretation.

When you work with people from culturally diverse backgrounds, it is often the difference in cultural values that causes misunderstandings and possibly conflict. You may misunderstand the other person and react in ways that can hinder the development of trusting, supportive and helpful relationships.

According to (DuPraw & Axner 1997), there are six fundamental patterns of cultural differences and these can all impact on service delivery.  We have included some examples for you.

Select each of the six patterns below to see related examples.

Different verbal communication styles

Across cultures, some words and phrases are used in different ways. For example, ‘yes’ can vary from ‘maybe I’ll consider it’ to ’definitely yes’. This can affect a worker’s perception of the client’s consent to a course of action. When they say ‘yes’ or tacitly agree to a worker’s suggestion, it may not really mean that they do agree with the worker but rather that they do not want to offend the worker by disagreeing with them.

Different non-verbal communication styles

Non-verbal communication refers to facial expressions, gestures, seating arrangements, personal distance, and sense of time. For example, avoidance of eye contact is a sign of great respect in some cultures, including our Australian Indigenous cultures. Some Australians regard this as a sign of hiding something.

Different attitudes toward conflict

Some cultures view conflict as a positive thing, whilst others try to avoid it.  For example, many Eastern countries deal with their conflict quietly. A written exchange might be the favoured means to resolve the conflict.

Different approaches to completing tasks

People from different cultures tend to complete tasks differently. Some may be task-orientated, whilst others are relationship-orientated. For example, Asian cultures tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning of a shared project and more emphasis on task completion towards the end, as compared with Europeans. Conversely, Europeans tend to focus immediately on the task at hand and let relationships develop as they work on that task. The fact that one group chooses task over relationship does not mean that they place different values on relationships or that they are less committed, rather that they just pursue different goals during the process.

Different decision-making styles

Decision-making roles vary widely from culture to culture.  Some cultures delegate, while other cultures place higher value on holding decision-making responsibilities. When decisions are made in a group, some cultures may prefer majority rule, while others view consensus as the preferred mode for reaching a decision. Australian Aboriginal people reach decisions of importance to their clan only after discussing them with others in the clan, particularly elders.

Different attitudes toward disclosure

When you deal with a conflict, ensure that you are aware of how people may differ in expressing their emotions. Some questions that may need to be asked, such as ‘What was the conflict about?’ may seem intrusive and personal.

The best way to work with different cultures is to be aware that cultural diversity exists and to talk about the differences.

You need to remember two things concerning cultural diversity:

  • It can be difficult to address cultural differences without resorting to stereotypes. Stereotypes should not exist, as no person is exactly like another person and no individual is a clone of another member of a group.
  • As diversity in an organisation grows, so does the complexity of communication and the necessity to make greater effort in developing improved communication skills.

Diversity can create opportunities for character development by teaching tolerance and respect and encouraging concern for equity for people from culturally diverse backgrounds.

(Smith, Miller, Archer & Hague 2002)


Behaviour and assumption

Section 4 activities (Word Document 29KB)

Last modified: Thursday, 3 November 2016, 2:31 PM