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<xTITLE>Culture and Conflict</xTITLE>

Culture and Conflict

by Olatunji Oniyaomebi, Bouchra Azizy
November 2019

Culture influences conflict outbreak, conflict perception, conflict escalation, and conflict resolution. Herein, conflict may be defined as a situation involving incompatibility. Such incompatibility may be perceived, latent, or manifested. Culture may be defined as the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music, and arts (Zimmermann, 2017). Thus, an individual’s unique upbringing and environment results in a culture that is, on an individual level, inherently diverse from other individual cultures. In this sense, it is possible for an individual to be active in several cultures simultaneously. Bouchra, co-author of this article, is, for example, active in the following cultural identities: as a mediator, a Moroccan, a Moroccan-American, a Muslim, a peace-builder, a peacemaker, a volunteer, and so on. Due to its very nature, culture is understandably diverse.

 

As noted, culture is an essential part of conflict and conflict resolution. A closer look at Bouchra’s cultural identity illustrates this point. Within the society of her birth country of Morocco, relationships build slowly and trust-building takes time, making it a high context culture. In addition, a good reputation within one’s social group and the community will grant a Moroccan high social capital. As a young girl growing up in Mohammadia, Bouchra observed neighborhood elders and trusted members of her small community come together to mediate and resolve grievances. In disputes over such issues as a barking dog, a merchant-patron, trash and so on, elderly neighbors Jelali and Ramya were specifically sought as mediators. The pair recognized that building strong relationships in a collectivist society is not only a social obligation, but is considered fundamental in building safety and harmony among Moroccan communities. Within their world, an apology was central to achieving the goal of joint problem-solving and peacebuilding. Both excellent listeners, Jelali and Ramya directed each side to have their say before the pair worked to find thoughtful and creative mutual solutions for the problem at hand. Offender apology acceptance, and forgiveness of the offender by the offended, was stressed. The elders would often quip, "Allah esameh wa el mosameh Karim,” or “God forgives and who forgives is generous.” In other words, the opportunity to offer an apology and to be forgiven was and still is crucial in repairing and reestablishing relationships amongst disputants and within a community as a whole. Bouchra’s mentors applied these subtle cultural values and practices to mediate disputes, with great success. Even now, as a professionally-trained mediator in America, Bouchra still uses many of the skills she observed originally in Jelali and Ramya.

Though Jelali and Ramya merely served as mediators in one small Moroccan community, the conflict resolution expectations they encountered were not unlike those of the rest of the country. Morocco is a multi-ethnic society, wherein different groups retain dissimilar cultural practices. However, the population is 99% Muslim. Because of this, there is a strong shared belief in the teachings of the Quran, including the hope of believers for a place in Jannah (paradise). Unified by faith, common expectation among the different ethnicities in the country is that neighbors resolve simple communal disputes. In general, people perceive themselves as very tolerant and striving to promote peace. Serving God is an essential part of daily life, and many believers base their perspectives regarding apology on the teachings of the Quran, wherein God asks, if you do not accept an apology and are unable to forgive whomever has done harm to you, how can you expect me to forgive you? An apology is, therefore, highly valued and understood as the first step in the healing process for both offender and offended. According to Islamic principles, forgiveness is considered an obligation and a profound and essential ethical duty. Thus, in Moroccan society, an offender and a victim apologizing to each other is common. Apology is both fundamental and crucial for peacemaking, as it's woven into the social and cultural fabric. Hence, it is an essential conflict resolution method often used to prevent intractable conflicts within the various communities. Peacemakers like Jelali and Ramya ensure that conflicts can be resolved away from the court system. Adherence to the mediator(s) decision is also a Moroccan expectation. Violating such an expectation puts the offender at risk for being ostracized, an outcome far worse than any petty crime, simple dispute or verdict.

As can be seen, the culture in which one is immersed influences one’s perception of conflict and effective conflict resolution. For example, if peacemaking and peace-building held the most sway in Bouchra's opinions, such concepts would power her reactions whenever she were in conflict. Hence, mediators must not only be mindful of their own dominant culture, but perhaps more importantly the dominant culture of disputants. He or she will then be better able to put him or herself in a disputant's shoes in order to see the conflict through their eyes. Knowledge of the cultures wherein disputants are most active could also mean the difference between drawn-out mediation; a quick and lasting agreement; an agreement that ends a particular battle without ending the war; or no mediated agreement.

Olatunji, the second co-author of this article, grew up in a Methodist and Roman Catholic household in Nigeria. Like Morocco, Nigeria is defined overall as a high context culture. But with over 250 ethnicities, marked differences exist within individual cultural beliefs. However, common expectation among the different ethnicities is that neighbors resolve simple communal disputes. As a young boy in Lagos, his building, like many in the city, housed people of varying ethnicities and faiths (including Christianity, Islam, Native Religion, and so on). It was barely a decade after the Nigerian Civil War, in which many of the neighbors had fought on opposite sides of the conflict or had relocated to their specific ethnic areas. These former allies and enemies were now neighbors, and as such, expected to resolve minor disputes. Presently, Lagos is Africa's most populated megalopolis, and yet minor disputes between neighbors rarely end in court.

In contrast, minor neighbor-neighbor disputes frequently appear on the mediation docket in California, USA. America as a whole may be defined as a low context culture, wherein relationships begin and end quickly, and communication takes place in a matter-of-fact tone. However, many of the neighbor-neighbor cases involve disputants immersed in high, low, and/or mixed context culture. Marked differences also exist within individuals’ experience of power and interpretation of conflict. Such differences can become a source of escalation when neighbors disagree. One such situation led to a court dispute between an African-American buyer (female) and two Chinese-American merchants (mother and son).

 The buyer believed the gold necklace she bought from the merchants two and half years earlier was 2 carats more valuable than it actually was. Because the jewelry was not 100 percent pure gold, the merchant recommended regular cleaning to prevent discoloration, and the buyer brought the jewelry to the shop to be cleaned as scheduled. Despite the buyer’s fastidiousness, the metal’s color had already begun to fade, so she approached the merchant about the problem. The merchant (an American-born son of Chinese parents) explained that the jewelry was 2-carats lower in quality than the buyer had previously believed, thus accounting for the fast discoloration. The merchant produced the store record as proof and offered a gold swap of equal quality to replace the fading necklace. The patron refused, irate about what she believed to be a misrepresentation of the necklace’s value. In response, the merchant accused the buyer of trying to con the store. The conflict escalated when the irate buyer rebuffed an intervention attempt by the merchant’s mother. Harsh words were exchanged, and the long-time patron was ultimately asked to leave the store. Decades worth of goodwill between the parties had evaporated in moments—the African-American buyer had bought her first piece of jewelry from the older Chinese merchant nearly thirty years prior to the necklace incident. However, nine months after the incident, the parties found themselves in court. The buyer sued the Chinese merchants for what she’d originally paid for the necklace, her court fees, pain and suffering. The buyer’s niece, and sister in-law (a professional jewelry appraiser), was also present for support. Also in attendance were the junior merchant's wife and eldest son. 

This mediation is voluntary hence a party may end the process by requesting a trial. As plaintiff, the buyer spoke first. She felt duped by the merchant; thus, the dollar amount she was requesting from the court felt justified. The defendant spoke next. The elder Chinese and original storeowner was semi-retired— her son managed the business. Her English was also poor. Thus, the son spoke for his mother. He claimed that although the plaintiff paid for a gold necklace 2-carats lower than she thought it to be, she wore said necklace for two and half years. Thus, giving a 2-carat higher necklace or the dollar amount the plaintiff requested felt unfair. Moreover, he continued, a pure gold necklace is 24 carats. The plaintiff paid for a 50 percent pure necklace— meaning the remaining 50 percent was made of alloys. Even at 2 carats higher, he explained, the necklace still wouldn't be 100 percent pure gold, which meant it, too, could potentially change color after repeated exposure to hair coloring products. He added that since the plaintiff took the dispute to court, he and his mother withdrew their former offer of a necklace swap. Finally, he argued, the plaintiff told his mother to mind “your fucking Chinese business” when she tried to intervene at the onset of the conflict. For all these reasons, the younger Chinese merchant demanded that the plaintiff drop the case. His attitude almost ended the mediation prematurely, were it not for his mother’s intervention, which calmed the nerves of not only the younger merchant, but also the African-American plaintiff and her sister-in-law.

The Chinese culture tends to be characterized by high power, wherein a higher level of respect is paid to elders. The mediator's (Olatunji) Nigerian culture is also defined by high power. Thus, he surmised, in the eyes of the Chinese mother, the alleged insult most likely carried more weight than the financial burden of the suit. Thus, the buyer would have to apologize to her, else a mutually satisfactory resolution of the dispute would be impossible: the plaintiff’s words caused her to feel disrespected by someone younger than she, and such a slight would not be easily forgotten. A lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of the African-American meant she was unaware that the older merchant would take her insults to heart— despite decades of interaction, the two women remained cultural strangers.

With that in mind, the mediator requested to speak to the parties in separate caucuses. First, the merchants were to step outside the room and wait down the hall for their turn. As the mother and son moved down the hall, the mediator caught up with them briefly, patted the son on the back, and said, “Withdrawing the gold exchange offer is a power trip." Then he left quickly, before either could respond. Such reverse motivation tactics are often effective with parties that are stubbornly anchored to a position. By employing such a tactic, the expectation was that the expressed negative opinion would lead the merchants to swivel in the opposite decision of their original stance. However, a buyer-seller apology would still be the deciding factor in the success of the mediation. That being said, the mediator must plan for multiple scenarios, and, as they come to fruition, act appropriately.

In this mediator’s (Olatunji) view, individuals in negotiation are embroiled in psychological conflict—a Should I? Or Shouldn't I? (SISI) Dilemma. Everyone, whether involved in a simple or complex negotiation, faces the SISI Dilemma at some point, as any bargaining position is actually a choice that can be modified or eliminated—it’s merely a matter of what the person decides to do. In that vein, nothing is important that you haven't made important yourself (Oniyaomebi, 2018). Therefore, he reasons, the key to changing an adopted position is convincing the other side to exchange Shouldn’t I? with Should I?

In their private caucus, the plaintiff's sister in-law acknowledged that hair-coloring products could discolor a gold necklace less than 24K, and the purer the gold content, the less susceptible the necklace would be to such discoloration. Further examination revealed that the plaintiff’s original receipt included a dollar amount but no carat number—a normal practice of the merchant, according to the African-American plaintiff. Still, this discovery moved the Chinese merchants into the driver’s seat within the negotiation. The plaintiff’s in-law agreed; in fact, she claimed that she’d attempted to make the plaintiff aware of the receipt problem multiple times, with no effect. At this point, the mediator asked the plaintiff whether apologizing to the merchant were a possibility. She agreed to apologize—now fearing the worst. Even so, the mediator felt that the plaintiff would not have taken the conflict this far without a sense of real injustice. In their private caucus, the merchants knew that the receipt shifted the balance of power in their favor. The junior merchant was confident that in a he-said, she-said case, the plaintiff would likely lose. Appealing to the defendants’ sense of fairness, the mediator asked them to consider paying for the court cost and retabling their original offer of a necklace swap as a kind gesture. In return, the case would be dismissed without prejudice (though it could be refiled, if necessary), and the agreement would dictate that the plaintiff bring the jewelry to their store for regular cleaning. Despite these negotiations, “We prefer to go to trial,” the junior defendant said.

The mediator politely informed the merchant's mother of a saying in his Yoruba language in Nigeria: ?ni t'óba f?´ t?´l?´ tùtù, a dó mi s'iwaju, or someone that desires to walk on soft soil waters the ground. In other words, one only achieves peace by making peace. He reminded her that a relationship going back three decades was worth preserving. Hence, he argued, his negotiation request was reasonable. Moreover, direct and indirect reciprocity would go a long way in their neighborhood (the parties said that many in the community eagerly awaited the court’s outcome). "We prefer to see the judge!" the younger merchant cut in, ignoring the mediator’s pleas. Despite the younger merchant’s assertions, the mediator knew that even within the relationship of mother and son, culture played a role: the older merchant would be the final decision-maker. He continued to appeal to her. He mentioned that the plaintiff was willing to apologize. At this point, the mother interrupted her frustrated son. She agreed to the terms, but only if the plaintiff would also promise to speak kindly of her and her son in the community (she then muttered something to her son in Chinese). After the signed agreement, the parties engaged in friendly banter and left the courthouse together.

As can be seen, cultural context has its own rules when it comes to conflict resolution. Such rules tend to underscore the importance of understanding cultural differences. It is tempting to attribute a minor court dispute between neighbors to a "sue-happy American culture." However, this particular conflict was interculturally complex. When the plaintiff first contacted the merchant about the necklace discoloration, their incompatible goals, resultant emotion, and significant cultural differences meant the parties would forego an opportunity to defuse the conflict and prevent escalation. The plaintiff’s final acceptance of the merchant’s original offer demonstrated how various byproducts of cultural differences, including stereotypes, prejudice, misconceptions, fundamental attribution errors, and negative emotion, can create blinders that precipitate conflict development and entrenchment.

In the larger picture, a knowledge of how varying cultures interpret and resolve conflict was crucial in resolving this dispute. The case illustrates that mediator savvy in intercultural conflict can better provide clients with the best conflict resolution assistance. Had the judge decided the outcome, the African-American plaintiff would have likely lost everything, including the jewelry swap and court fees. However, the winners may have suffered the biggest loss in the long run if the plaintiff were motivated to spread further ill will about Chinese in the community. Such a blow could have proved far costlier than a court victory. The cultural differences between mother and son implied that she was more aware than he was of such a possibility.

Thankfully, both sides won in this case, just as Jelali and Ramya preached in Morocco. And interestingly enough, an apology was, indeed, the deciding factor. Bouchra and Olatunji consider apology, regardless of cultural setting, as the cheapest, yet most potent method of showing contrition. However, such a conflict resolution tool is often under-utilized and under-appreciated in many societies. For example, in American society, asking parties to apologize to each other for their part in a conflict is a tall order, especially for the wronged party. Yet Bouchra's experience as mediator and in her Restorative Justice practice is that those who have tried claim it makes forgiveness easier and provides a sense of catharsis. 

This case also shows that one can, in fact, be active in several cultures simultaneously. The American-born son of the Chinese merchant functioned under his mother's high power culture, yet his tone was direct, and his comments placed a higher premium on legal advantage, thus demonstrating his American cultural influence. His Taiwan born mother, though a long-time resident of America, expected unspoken words to be understood and valued apology and reputation within the neighborhood more than legal advantage—demonstrating her Chinese cultural influence. The behavior of the mother and son shows that cultural differences, even within the same family, affect perception of conflict and how it should be resolved. Such differences also play a role in conflict escalation. Thus, mediators and conflict resolvers need to be mindful of the cultures within which disputants are most active, particularly if the disputants identify with significantly different cultural backgrounds.

 

 

Footnotes

High-context & Low-context culture

A high-context culture relies on implicit communication and nonverbal cues, so messages cannot be understood without a great deal of background information. Asian, African, Arab, central European and Latin American cultures are generally considered to be high-context cultures. In contrast, a low-context culture relies on explicit communication so that more information is spelled out and defined. Cultures with western-European roots, such as Australia, Canada, and the United States are generally considered to be low-context cultures.

 

Fundamental Attribution Error

The tendency to assume that a person’s actions depend on what "kind" of person they are rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence them.

 

 

ENDNOTES 

Oniyaomebi, O. (2018). Everything is important, still nothing is important. Retrieved from

https://www.mediate.com/articles/oniyaomebio1.cfm

Zimmermann, K.A. (July 12, 2017).  What is culture? Definition of culture. Live Science.

Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/21478-what-is-culture-definition-of-culture.html

 

Biography



Olatunji Oniyaomebi is a court-connected mediator in the Superior Court of California with a portfolio involving civil harassment, small claims and unlawful detainer.  He was a computer systems administrator for twenty-eight years, the last twenty-three as IT manager for an international beauty products manufacturer.  He found systems administration and mediation as having a lot in common.  They both demand problem-solving skills, people and communication skills, attention to detail, listening skills, neutrality, quick thinking, and coming up with creative ideas for problem solving.  Building relationships and forging peace is very important to him. He's finishing up grad school in Negotiation, Conflict Resolution and Peace Building. 

Bouchra Azizy