Culture and Conflict in the Classroom

This is an assignment I wrote for an AQ course I am taking. Though the course is about Behavioural Needs, we’ve done some thoughtful assignments about culture and values in the classroom. I will be posting some of those assignments over the coming days, as they fit with the values I want to explore here on my blog. 

The concept of culture seems straightforward to understand when you have only ever lived in your own culture. You may study what culture is, and in our multi-cultural society, may even be regularly exposed to people from other cultures, and that may lead you to think you have a good understanding of the concept of culture and how it affects people and their lifestyles. However, until you have actually removed yourself from your own culture, and immersed yourself in a foreign one, it is impossible to fully understand the depth and significance of culture and the ramifications of those differences on every interaction that comes up.

In North America, we are taught that “it’s a small world after all,” and that all cultural differences are just superficial because we are actually all the same. While our value as human beings is certainly all the same, once the scope and influence of culture is understood better, it becomes obvious that the world is not even remotely small, and our differences are far from insignificant.

This becomes incredibly important when dealing with cross-cultural conflict. When working to resolve conflict with members of our own culture, we can make many assumptions about values, behaviour, and expectations that are often correct (Ohbuchi, Fukushima and Tedeschi, 51). Even if our opinions or mannerisms differ, there is a shared underlying common “language” of values spoken. If you have not personally experienced immersion in a foreign culture (and a holiday or otherwise “unengaged” experience does not count), you will likely be thinking, “no, their values conflict! That is why there is conflict!” However, there is a difference between personal values and the underlying cultural values; that is something seasoned international workers see so clearly it is a given (personal experience, training, and discussion with many global workers).

Why does this matter to us as teachers here in Canada? In most areas, our classrooms are decidedly multicultural. In some areas, this just means different ethnic backgrounds, but in many others, it means truly multicultural: first and second generation Canadians, foreign exchange students, children from families “working abroad” for a year, etc. It is a given that conflict will arise at some point, and we need to be prepared to deal with it in a way that shows a sensitivity and respect for cultural differences in conflict resolution.

In Western, individualistic cultures, we put high value on direct, honest, and confrontational conflict resolution strategies (note: confrontation does not always mean bad; it means addressing the issue instead of letting it go or holding it in). In much of the world that is more collectivist, the opposite is true; people deal with conflict in a passive, collaborative or (seemingly) avoiding way (Ohbuchi, Fukushima and Tedeschi, 52).

For example, in Canada, if Sarah is upset by something Melanie did, Sarah is taught to approach Melanie and directly deal with the issue, perhaps using an “I Statement” such as, “I felt disrespected when you handed our project in without letting me read it first.” In Thailand, though, this would be seen as a very rude way to handle the issue, because it will embarrass Melanie by drawing attention to her mistake. Instead, Sarah would be taught to go to Lauren and say, “Melanie handed in our project without letting me read it first. That really hurt my feelings.” Then, Lauren would go to Melanie and say, “Sarah is upset that you handed in the project before she read it.” Melanie would respond, “Oh, I didn’t mean to hurt her; I was just afraid of handing it in late!” Then Lauren would go back to Sarah and say, “Everything is okay now. She’s sorry.” In the meantime, Sarah and Melanie are acting toward each other as though nothing was wrong. The whole situation was dealt with “behind the scenes” so that no one had to be embarrassed through confrontation. In Canada, we would call this gossiping, or dragging more people into the issue than is necessary.

This leads us directly to a complicated aspect of many collectivist cultures: the notion of “saving face.” Saving face is all about preserving the image of everyone involved. In the West, our primary concern is with saving our own face (“self-face”); that is, making sure that we are not embarrassed or made to look foolish. This is largely why we prefer the direct root to dealing with conflict, as fewer people are made aware of our mistakes if they are addressed privately. However, collectivist cultures are more concerned with other-face and mutual-face; they will go out of their way to avoid making you look foolish, or will do whatever they can to make sure no one is embarrassed (Oetzel & Ting-Toomey, 604). It is far too complex an issue to get into here, but it is so important that teachers of international students be aware of this significant difference in cultural priorities! It forms the foundation of every interaction with other people, and will absolutely play a significant role in how the student conducts themselves during conflict.

So, in the Canadian classroom, is the point to diversify our conflict resolution strategies to allow for every culture to resolve their issues their own way? Not necessarily. That only works when both parties involved know and practice conflict resolution in the same way. There is definitely a place for intentionally teaching Canadian conflict resolution skills. However, we also need to be very aware that our style of conflict resolution is not going to be natural, familiar, or even polite to many foreign cultures. It is not a right or wrong, but a different, and it needs to be treated as such.

When addressing conflict in a cross-cultural relationship, it is important that culture be openly acknowledged as a factor. Each party should be given the opportunity to explain the situation from their own perspective, and effort should be made to avoid telling (or treating) the foreign perspective as “wrong.” Students should be encouraged to try to understand how the other person is thinking, even if they don’t agree. This is how we foster not only cultural awareness, but cultural understanding, and only through understanding can we begin to deal effectively with conflict.


Oetzel, John G., and Ting-Toomey, Stella. (2003). “Face Concerns in Interpersonal Conflict – A Cross-Cultural Empirical Test of the Face Negotiation Theory.” Communication Research (30, 6), Retrieved online on Nov 26, 2014.

Ohbuchi, Ken-Ichi, Fukushima, Osamu, and Tedeschi, James T. (1999). “Cultural Values in Conflict Management – Goal Orientation, Goal Attainment, and Tactical Decision.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (30, 1), Retrieved online on Nov 26, 2014.

2 thoughts on “Culture and Conflict in the Classroom

  1. This is terrific, Jessica! Really well presented.

    Thanks! Dad

    Rev. John Pellowe, MBA, DMin CEO, Canadian Council of Christian Charities

  2. This certainly resonates with what we experienced when living overseas, in Egypt. In being immersed in a foreign culture, I saw that in some ways we just did not understand each other – our underlying cultural values were very different and therefore when conversations when beyond the surface (from “How are you?”) to deeper issues, the differences became more stark. (Actually, even answering, “How are you?” was somewhat complex!) I am looking forward to reading more of your papers!

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