Intercultural Conflict Competence: Eastern and Western Lenses

February 18, 1999

Professor Stella Ting-Toomey

Simon Fraser University Vancouver (at Harbour Centre)


by Ms. Virginia Langdon


FACE is identity and respect. It is a keen sense of favorable feelings about self- worth and what we want others to think. It is the degree that we are willing to consider the other person's identity in a wide range of communication situations.

FACEWORK is communication behaviour. It is about verbal and non-verbal messages used to maintain our own face or other people's faces, or to honour or attack.

These two concepts span academic boundaries and cut across contacts such as business deals, diplomacy and interpersonal relations.

How I became interested in Face and Facework

Fifteen years ago while working on my dissertation, I was reviewing the literature on intercultural conflict. The recommendations for reaching solutions in intercultural conflicts were characterized by a style of being "upfront" and direct. Participants in a conflict should express their feelings and assert themselves whether the situation was international in scope or interpersonal.

These ideas didn't jive with the intuitive and personal feelings I had about how to effectively deal with intercultural conflict, so this started my journey into studying this subject. Over time I have dealt with and studied a range of solutions to conflict issues and in that process have come up with a Facework Theory composed of several basic assumptions


1. People in all cultures want to maintain face. There are basic face needs across cultures which try to maintain communication and respect. Facework is problematic. In the midst of conflict, the question is, "Should I preserve my own face or oblige the interests of the other party?"

2. It is important to draw on true cultural value dimensions, including the Individualistic and Collectivistic dimensions, and the Power distance dimensions, both the High Power and Low Power.

3. Mediating factors affect the way we deal with conflict. These factors can be situational features like formality or informality or individual personality factors like dependence or independence.

4. The Facework Communicator who is judged to be competent meets these criteria:

Effectiveness. The communicator pursues the goals of the conflict situation.
Appropriateness. The communicator is sensitive and responds to the contextual situation.
"Affect" or a "feeling" kind of satisfaction is part of the outcome.

5. Conflict Management includes three essential components, whether within or
between cultures.

Knowledge about cultures especially the sensitive aspects.
Mindfulness (Introspective and Projective).
Communication skills which are appropriate and effective.



Individualistic value dimensions of Western Societies.

1. The "I" identity places emphasis on individuals with less concern for the group.

2. Reciprocity is voluntary, self-initiated or self-motivated.

3. A personal bonus or incentive is seen as helping to motivate the individual toward achieving the goals of the group. Focus is on the management of individuals rather than the management of the group.

Collectivistic value dimensions of Asian Societies.

1. The "we" identity takes major prominence. Attention is on what will benefit the group. There is a sharper distinction between an in-group and out- group. It takes longer to gain admission to the in-group.

2. Reciprocity comes from a sense of obligation. The feeling is one of mutual obligation which is more long term and can stretch over years.

3. Members feel interconnected in a group orientation system which creates more group solidarity.

4. Management can appeal to this group level solidarity.

Seventy-five percent of the world's population subscribes to some kind of collective outlook and approach.

Even though I have described these characteristics in two specifically defined groups, it is important to remember that all characteristics lay on a continuum and that some individuals will have a mixture of cultural values from both the West and East.


Small Power Dimensions of Western Countries

1. People feel equal.

2. Interaction is informal and at a horizontal level.

3. People expect to be consulted; to be part of the decision-making process.

Large Power Dimensions of Asian Countries.

1. Authority comes from position. "If I'm the boss, treat me like the boss."

2. Direction is expected. "Since you are the boss, you tell me what to do."

3. Formality is emphasized and practiced.

4. Communication is in a downward vertical direction.

SYMBOLIC FACE (Different meanings)

The WestEmphasize more self-oriented view. If I'm credible, I'm competent.
Win-lose orientationAsianThere is more mutual orientation. Interest in "saving face" is not only directed at self, but also at the other person. There is concern for the group reputation and a win-win orientation.

What strategy do people use.....especially when in conflict ?

Western or Individualistic Strategy

1. They use a more defensive mode to protect their own face. When they lose face they are embarrassed and in order to achieve a kind of face restoration they blame other outside people or causes.

2. They use situational accounts to defend their own honour. I've done my part, but others on the team didn't do their part . I'm late arriving at the meeting because of no parking spaces.

3. Generally prefer a horizontal facework mode.

Asian or Collectivistic Strategy

1. They think about mutual face-saving. There is no win-lose construct, but instead a win-win attitude.

2. They believe that if I help save the other person's face at this time, perhaps the other person will help save my face at a future date.

3. They use proactive accounts in terms of protecting their face. They make an effort to lower the expectations of other persons and apologize ahead of time emphasizing they have done their best and hope the others will forgive them.

4. Expect to be treated according to their role category.


Conflict Negotiating Style of the West

1. They take a low context communication approach. It's best to talk it out, work it out, brainstorm, and clarify the issue.

2. They prefer a direct, digital linear logic pathway which is dominating and competitive.

3. They like to have closure to the conflict by finding a solution. Prefer to finish the task at hand and then get to know their opponents.

Conflict Negotiating style of the East

1. They rely on a high context communication approach to manage the conflict.

2. They must work out the relationship with people before dealing with the conflict. The more we know about you, the more we know how you work.

3. They make use of indirect, tactful verbal and non-verbal messages.

Recommended content when training people to competently use knowledge, mindfulness and communication skills


1. Western and Eastern cultural values... differences and similarities.

Dimensions of the Western individualistic culture and Eastern or Asian collectivistic culture.

Dimensions of Western Low Power culture and Eastern
High Power culture. It is also important to know which cultures
attach significance to categories such as age, gender, or wisdom.

How all of the above information links to verbal and non-verbal communication.

2. The "why" behind cultural characteristics and the importance of seeking out the "why" answers in all situations. ( ie: When Asians hesitate to say "no" to an invitation, their belief is that they are honouring the face of the other person.)

3. Individual personalities and the perceptions they hold about people and events may be more important than features in the environment.

4. The human diversity issue is a major challenge. We are taught to have certain cultural values and perceptions....not born with those beliefs.

5. The importance of "goal direction" when working on a conflict. Need to understand core conflict goals.


Mindfulness is part of a Buddhist concept which includes: Mindfulness, Compassion and
Wisdom. With Mindfulness there are two dimensions: Introspective and Projective.

Introspective Mindfulness

1. We cannot understand others until we understand our own cultural values and are aware of the ethnocentric view finders or glasses we wear.

2. We need to re-center ourselves and sometimes use the best from each opposing culture. The East contributes a wholistic value of looking at the Big Picture, how things are Connected, while the West provides evidence and details about the conflict.

3. Working collaboratively with all values, we may find better quality solutions

Projective Mindfulness

1. We need to transpose ourselves in order to understand the affective and cognitive filters of the other person representing the opposing side of the conflict.

2. We need to recognize and understand how values create behaviour and how cultural
values connect to personal values.


1. Communication skills include Observation, Description, Interpretation, and Suspending Evaluation (O.D.I.S.). Mastering this approach will help learners understand why people are doing what they're doing.

2. Listening means using your ears, eyes, and focused heart in a way that shows respect.

3. The values that surround inquiry differ from West to East. The Westerner believes it is important to get all the details whereas the Easterner looks at the large picture and wants to know life, how they balance work and family demands.

4. Enlarging the description of an observation is important. Add cues which come from non-verbal and body language messages. How can the facial composure and body language be described and how did they affect the observer.

5. In conflict situations we need to move beyond the surface to underlying factors . There often are universal human needs contributing to the framework of the conflict, such as the need for respect, intimacy, or power. How can we engage in collaborative discussions when these basic needs are not being met?


1. In my research work I've been developing a situational model in accounting for face, facework, and conflict styles.

2. We need to look for more precise dimensions for those situations called formal and informal, intimate and non-intimate, and compare what they each produce.

3. Some of my students are working on the affect satisfaction mode connected to facework. How do we recoup face loss? When we become defensive we tie into ethnocentric boundaries. We need to know more about these group-based boundaries.

5. We need to know more about the core dimensions of mindfulness.


Face is a human dignity issue....a human rights issue. All human beings want to be respected. The struggle is with the concept of recognizing other people's values and feelings.