Small businesses don't always work with international partners, but thanks to the interconnectedness of the modern business environment, more entrepreneurs are finding themselves going global sooner than expected. Growing beyond one's own domestic borders avails a company to valuable partnerships and opportunities that could ultimately help scale up operations, but it also carries the threat of new cultural barriers and unintentional social faux pas.
Working in the international business world places an imperative upon learning the etiquette, language or everyday social interactions of other cultures. For the international businessperson, understanding those cultural differences and adhering to the social norms of a host country could make the difference between sealing the deal and burning a bridge.
This is especially true in the realm of conflict resolution. Once a conflict arises, you are already on shaky ground, so avoiding offensive behavior or miscommunication is key to finding a successful resolution. When dealing with the global East, however, conflict resolution could look vastly different from how it does in the West.
Research from the University of Virginia Darden School Foundation shows that is the case, at least. Professors Kristin Behfar and Ming-Jer Chen studied cultural differences in conflict resolution and found that, generally, Western nations tend to respect directness, while Eastern nations favor a more indirect approach. Indirect confrontation is characterized by an attempt to preserve social harmony and subtle signaling to resolve a conflict, the researchers wrote. However, in the U.S., a direct style prevails, as Westerners tend to prioritize business over personal feelings.
Common characteristics of indirect confrontation style
If you grew up in the Western hemisphere, you might be inclined to try to tackle conflicts head-on. Direct, forthcoming explanation of the issues at hand and your expectations might seem like the most respectable course of action, but it is important to first consider your audience.
Many cultures in the Eastern hemisphere prefer an indirect handling of conflict, which includes the following:
- Prioritization of the preservation of interpersonal relationships
- Reliance on subtle signaling, rather than overt actions
- Tendency toward the suppression of outward emotion
- Frequent employment of apologies as expressions of remorse, rather than of guilt
- Often involves a third party from the start, rather than near the end
Indirect confrontation, the researchers found, tends to win out against a more direct style in business disputes, so it's important for Western businesspeople to be aware of the culture of their potential partners. Understanding what indirect confrontation is – and what it isn't – is essential.
Learning to confront an issue indirectly
So, what can a person immersed in a more directly confrontational culture do to better understand indirect confrontations? It might be difficult at first to play the indirect game, but with a little attentiveness and practice, Westerners can learn to successfully engage in indirect confrontation as well. Behfar offered her advice for those curious about indirect confrontation:
- Listen for verbal cues like asking questions, telling a story or sharing an experience.
- Look for nonverbal signals like emotional expressions (e.g., withdrawal) and behavioral cues (crossed arms) that convey disagreement.
- Be aware of other signals, such as putting up posters, postponing meetings and missing deadlines without warning.
- Above all, be patient and make sure the other party can always save face.
By mastering the above skills, as well as those associated with direct confrontation, the international businessperson's toolbox becomes handier. Competence in indirect confrontation is another step on the road to becoming "culturally ambidextrous," as the authors of the research put it. And cultural ambidexters have a natural advantage stepping into the boardroom, wherever it might be.