East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 1995, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Managing Cross-Cultural Conflict

Duane Elmer

The Problem
Westerners, simply by being themselves, create conflict because they operate from a different value base [than non-Westerners]. Directness, confrontation, forthrightness, and candid outspokenness are valued and expected in Western culture. In most of the world, these same values, even when demonstrated respectfully, are considered rude, unrefined, ill-mannered, discourteous, and even contemptuous. It is easy to see how quickly misunderstanding, miscommunication, and conflict emerge.

A Recipe for Harmony: Six Ingredients
Before we engage in any serious contact with the people of another culture or racial group, we need to realize that they may hold different cultural values and use different rules to respond to conflict situations. What does this mean?

First, it means that the majority of the people in the world value relationships above most other values. So building relationships of trust takes top priority. Nothing of significance is likely to happen if there is little trust. Most Anglo-Westerners try to build trust by showing themselves competent in completing tasks, whereas others tend to build trust by spending time, including work time, together.

Second, most people do not separate the person from the person's words or acts. To criticize a person's idea is to criticize or demean the person. So statements like "Don't take this personally, but..." are likely to cause hurt feelings and alienation for people outside of an Anglo-Western culture. Westerners tend to dichotomize between the person and the words or acts; we rather freely evaluate another's words, ideas or actions, believing that our comments are not personal and should not strain the relationship. For most people in the world, however, attacking someone's words or acts constitutes an attack on the person and is perceived as crude, if not vicious. Words, ideas, acts, and the person are an inseparable "one."

Third, when entering another cultural context, we need to begin by observing, asking nonjudgmental questions, learning, and seeking understanding. Above all, we must try to keep from thinking of cultural differences as either good or bad ("I like that" or "I don't like that"). Rather, we can think of them as curious differences that must exist for a good reason. Then we can try to find that reason.

Fourth, when with people different from ourselves, we need to be particularly careful about making evaluative statements, blame statements, "who-is-responsible" statements, or comments that single out one person or group as the cause of a problem. When among Westerners, one may need to be more assertive, since they believe that "you get what you go for." Westerners are not as skilled at reading between the lines and interpreting people who express themselves indirectly.

Fifth, when in an ambiguous or conflictual situation, Westerners are well-advised to set aside direct, confrontational strategies in favor of indirect ones. Be gracious, courteous, calm, and patient. On the other hand, the non-Westerner among Westerners needs to realize that indirect strategies may be interpreted as devious and even deceitful, while forthrightness will likely be well-received.

Sixth, the person who is getting to know a new culture will do well to build at least one good friendship and allow that person to be a cultural interpreter and cultural bridge-builder. It is best to find someone who is well-respected in the community, church, office, or corporation. This is the person one goes to for help in understanding ambiguous situations or handling a conflict. Work hard on the relationship for its own sake, but also because it may well mean the difference between success and failure for you.

Loosening the Purse Strings
A frequent but mistaken assumption that leads to cross-cultural conflict is the notion that ownership of resources automatically entitles a person or group to have sole power of managing those resources. Missionaries usually hold ownership of key resources, and in Western thinking that implies the singular right to control how those resources are used. If, in fact, God does own all things, then they fall not only under my stewardship, but also under the stewardship of my brothers and sisters. The disposition of God's resources should be seen not as an individual responsibility, but as a communal trust. I realize that this perspective makes us Westerners quite uncomfortable, but we must guide ourselves by Scripture rather than Western individualism or pragmatics.

The "I Know Best" Mode
I have never seen a missionary who is intentionally malicious and flagrantly exercises control over host-country people. But it is within the nature of all of us, when we have power, to believe that our ways are right.  Power inflames egocentrism--the belief that my way of seeing things is the right way. When I firmly believe that I am right and possess the power to exercise that rightness, the slide into the mode of "I know best" is effortless.

When I am in the "I know best" mode, whether I am conscious of it or not, others must necessarily experience being wrong--having less knowledge, less power, less insight, less authority, and less control over their lives. If people are put in this position on an ongoing basis, anger and resentment build and eventually erupt in rebellion; the aggrieved persons may usurp power in an explosive and painful manner. Accusations fly, demands multiply, confusion reigns. Rather than giving advice, Westerners overseas might do well to use probing and supportive responses--that is, take a discussion approach rather than a telling approach. In such a way, they would not only achieve understanding but also allow others to work out their own conclusions, which would undoubtedly be more culturally appropriate.

I must fault the Western schooling system--including Christian schools--where task often takes precedence over relationships, individualism over community, goals over people, right answers over openness, inquiry, and learning, and where service is defined more in terms of efficiency, accomplishment, and power than effectiveness, being, and humility. There is a tendency to believe that the more schooling one has had, the more one is qualified to give superior answers, to be right most of the time, to know best--even in a culture of people whose language one hardly understands. This belief, when expressed in relationships, chokes mutual freedom and smothers trust.

In Conclusion
Let us be humble in acknowledging that Westerners do not have exclusive insight on all that is right and wrong. God is not restricted to Western ways, and he has not exhausted his wisdom and grace on North America and Western Europe. The God who authored diversity loves it, embraces those who display it, and honors those who celebrate it. But humility does not imply naivete. People of the Word need each other to exercise collective discernment in interpreting the Bible, which stands as the final authority and judge of all that distorts God's glory in any culture. 

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Cross Cultural Conflict, Building Relationships for Effective Ministry by Duane Elmer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993). Dr. Elmer is Professor of Christian Education and Educational Ministries, Wheaton College Graduate School, Wheaton, IL.

Duane Elmer, "Managing Cross-Cultural Conflict," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 3 (Summer 1995), 10-11.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

1995 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe