THE DYNAMICS OF CROSS-CULTURAL CONFLICT

When cultural awareness homogeneity or sameness exists, behavior is much more predictable. Communication is not as difficult. Mutual trust, social cohesion and cooperation are easier to develop. In contrast, cross-cultural interactions are more apt to lead to miscommunication, mistaken assumptions, and conflict. All of us tend to be culturally myopic to some degree, meaning we are unable to see things and make connections beyond our own, limited world. Consequently, if conflict occurs, we see what we want and our reasons for wanting it. We have a much more difficult time seeing what others want and why. Social scientists, including Gordon All port, author of the seminal study The Nature of Prejudice,

2 have shown that without meaningful intergroup and intercultural contact, prejudice and conflict are likely. If we lack experience with culturally diverse populations, we are more prone to project our own assumptions onto others and assume similarity instead of dissimilarity. This can alienate people, shut down communication, and provoke conflict.

Historical Differences Our histories are an important part of our culture. Whether a few years ago or generations ago, what took place in the past can shape who we are and how we interact at the present. Historical experiences between societies can also lay the groundwork for cross-cultural interaction among individuals. As an example, knowledge of history can provide insight into the relationship between a patient and his doctor. For years, Dr. Kenneth Kipnis had ethic consultations at a number of hospitals in Hawaii; however, this case was different. An elderly Korean gentleman, suffering from a serious medical condition, refused medical treatment that promised a reasonably good chance of recovery. The patient gave no reason for his refusal. In spite of this, he indicated he wanted to be put on life support if he went into cardiac arrest. Dr. Kipnis’s job was to make sense of this discrepancy. Why would the patient refuse possible life-saving treatment but request life support if his heart stopped beating?

The Korean patient and Dr. Kipnis talked for a long time. After being asked question after question, the patient asked if anybody had noticed that all of his doctors were Japanese. Suddenly, the patient’s behavior began to make sense to Dr. Kipnis. During the early to mid-1900s, Imperial Japan had tyrannized Korea. As a result, many Koreans still harbored strong and Japanese feelings. What surprised Dr. Kipnis was how he had not even considered this possibility, even though he had extensive experience dealing with other types of prejudices that were rooted in the past. For example, he had examined cases in which White racists did not want Black doctors, or Jewish patients who did not want to be treated by German physicians. But the history of Japan and Korea was far removed from his consciousness.

As an ethics consultant, he decided to honor the Korean patient’s request and bring in a non-Japanese doctor. Otherwise, the patient would have died. Dr. Kipnis tries to treat patients in need with respect and understanding, even when their thinking is prejudicial and hateful.

Differences in Power

Power refers to a person’s ability to control or influence others. In some cases, differences in power can lead to conflict. How we relate to each other may very well be impacted by how much power we have or how we view the unequal distribution of power. When we are treated a certain way because we are powerful or powerless, it can lead to conflict. Moreover, power can affect whether an open and honest discussion of conflict or differences is even possible. Do you see power as a corrupting influence? While some cultures view power as problematic, others see it as a natural part of the social world. Many social relationships are hierarchical, meaning power defines how we relate to each other.

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