Communication 372 – Theory and Research in Intercultural Communication

John R. Baldwin

School of Communication

Illinois State University

Updated 10 June 2015


Intercultural/Intergroup Conflict


Conflict, like relationships, has different aspects or issues depending on whether it is between people of different cultures different ethnic, political, or other groups (seen as in- and out-groups). Intercultural communication conflict includes cross-cultural negotiation, small-group communication decision-making, and intercultural or cross-cutlural views of conflict.


Thomas defines dyadic conflict (that is, conflict between two people, as opposed to organizations or nations) as “the process which begins when one party perceives that the other has frustrated, or is about to frustrate, some concern of his [or hers]” (in Gudykunst, 2004, p. 274).


I. Types & Stages of Conflict

Bradford “J” Hall (2005) defines several key grounds for where conflict can occur.

·        Object conflicts: “involve conscious or unconscious disagreement and misunderstanding about something,” often in terms of whether something is true or false. Hall says that these are more “fact” conflicts than moral conflicts (whether something is right or wrong).

·        Relational conflicts: These regard the rights and responsibilities of individuals involved in the situation, such as like/dislike, power relations, responsibilities expected in different roles, etc. (For example, disagreements over what a relationship should look like, on the roles of the teacher and student)

·        Priority conflicts: Here we have conflicts over moral issues, right and wrong, what is more or less important


Gudykunst (2004) suggests that in intercultural or intergroup conflict, conflict can come from misinterpretation of the other’s behavior, perceived incompatibilities, or differences in attributions of one another’s behaviors. He notes two types of conflict, which relate to the first two types of conflict in Hall’s list:


·        Expressive conflicts: Related to feelings and the release of emotional tension

·        Instrumental conflicts: Related to tasks to be completed, and, thus, to goals, practices, resources, and so on.


BCGS describe 5 stages in conflict. Conflict never “goes away.” Even after a conflict is resolved, it sits in the background and can become fuel in a future conflict.

1.         Latent conflict

2.         Perceived conflict

3.         Felt conflict

4.         Manifest conflict

5.         Conflict aftermath

II.        Conflict styles

While individuals may differ in styles within cultures—and probably in different contexts and based on the importance of the conflict (Baldwin note: Far too little has been done in the role of context in most ICC studies!), research does suggest that there are some common styles that can classify conflict strategies and cultural orientations to these. But these become very important below, so they get their own heading. But beyond these styles, we note from different research these similarities and differences between White and Black conflict styles:

o   Discussion mode: Whites are more likely to use rational “discussion” mode in conflict, while Blacks are more likely to use intensity and emotion [All of these should be understood as tendencies! Many Whites are emotional; many Blacks are more rational, and many combine both styles]. Related to “definition of conflict,” many African Americans may see a boisterous (i.e., loud-volume and emotional) conversation as still a “discussion,” with different rules constituting when something becomes a “fight.” But many White communicators perceive raised voices and emotional intensity as signs of a “fight” or “argument.” So potentially, a White and Black could talk and, leaving the conversation, the Black might see it as a spirited discussion, and the White might see it as an argument.

o   Responsibility: However, another study finds that Whites and Blacks tend to differ on the perception of responsibility for intergroup conflict, the Whites blaming the Blacks and the Blacks dividing the responsibility with Whites.

o   Strategies: Still another study finds no difference between Black and White men, finding that both use more indirect strategies for conflict, with White and Black women differing in style, the former using more “solution-orientation” strategies and the latter more “controlling” strategies (Ting-Toomey, 1986).

o   Definition/Causes of Conflict: Still another study uses open-ended questionnaires to look at perception of conflict among friends for African, Mexican, and Caucasian Americans (Collier, 1986). This study concludes that Blacks are more likely to perceive conflict in terms of a misunderstanding; Anglos are more likely to take a “problem-issue” focus, seeking to resolve conflicts but sometimes seeing them as healthy for relationships; Mexican Americans are more likely to see conflicts a loss of harmony with long-term implications for the relationship. (She furthers this research in 1996 with a study on appropriate conduct in conflict for different ethnic groups). Notably, some cultures treat conflict as inherently bad, and some as something that can have positive outcomes.

o   Going back to our discussion of time, and the notion of Whites being “on” time versus Black culture having a preference for being “in” time, Whites may see “conflict” time as being clock-bound. If two roommates are arguing and it is time for class, the White might say, “Well, I gotta go to class.” (The time binds the conflict). But for the African American, the conflict and the relationship may have higher importance: She may feel the conflict is done when the issues are resolved.


Note that Ting-Toomey’s approach is “etic,” applying general patterns of styles to different ethnic cultures, But Collier’s is “emic.” Her work presents in-depth themes often separated by group: Each group’s responses receives its own categorization and theme set, with final comparison only conceptual, rather than numerical.

Conflict resolution styles:  Many authors have developed a grid (often using different names) to represent the interests of the two parties involved (own interests and other’s interests), with resulting five styles. Here I will visualize them, giving the main terms often used to describe the dimensions.



If I am most concerned in conflict with meeting my own goals at the expense of the goal of the other, I am using a dominating or controlling style. If, however, I would rather given in to conflict, for whatever reason (letting the other win and me lose), I am “obliging” or “yielding.” Stella Ting-Toomey, specifically (and in recent work with John Oetzel, who has also investigated culture in small groups to a great extent), has done a lot to try to predict which styles will predominate for different national cultures (e.g., Japan or the United States). Like most scholars, Ting-Toomey is not saying that one culture will use one style, and another culture a different style. Rather, she argues that there are cultural preferences for styles, all else being equal.


Photo not yet availableIII. The Face Negotiation Theory of Conflict

(Ting-Toomey, 1988; 2003; 2005;  Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998)


Ting-Toomey, S. (2015). Managing intercultural conflicts effectively. In L. A. Samovar, R. E. Porter, E. R. McDaniel, & C. S. Roy (Eds). Intercultural communication: A reader (14th ed., pp. 355-367). Boston, MA: Cengage.


Stella Ting-Toomey suggests that facework underlies the conflict resolution process and explains much cultural difference in the way cultures handle conflict. She (2003, p. 373) defines conflict as the perceived and/or actual incompatibility of values, expectations, processes, or outcomes between two or more parties.” She focuses her Face Negotiation Theory (FNT, or some call it the Face Conflict Negotiation Theory: FCNT) on conflict between people of different cultures [notably, the theory itself and most testing of it only looks at cross-cultural differences: How people in different cultures conflict, and not conflict between people of different cultures. The 2003 essay extends the theory to make suggestions for people in conflict with people from other cultures].


Here are some definitions from older T-T writings:

FACE: "The public self-image every member wants to claim for himself or herself" (p. 216)--the projected image of one's self in a relationship (1988, p. 215).


FACEWORK: "lend[ing] role-support to another's face while at the same time not bringing shame on one's own self-face" (1988, p. 216).


Face is the public image that someone desires in an interaction. Based on the work of Goffman and Brown and Levinson, face theory suggests that in interaction, we can preserve face (maintain our image or the face of the other), or, if it is damaged, can repair face (do something so that our image is restored). According to Goffman, we are always concerned with our face when in interaction with others. As I teach a class, I am at some level concerned with how I might look (Do I look competent in the technical skills of Web development? Do my pages look like I am a teacher who is warm and friendly? Are my examples believable?). It is as if I am on stage—with props (my laptop, etc.)! Sometimes, I let people “backstage,” but otherwise, I must keep my image up (for example, I must keep the appearance that I am “enjoying” the performance).


Face differs in a couple of key dimensions:

·        Face need: There are two types of image needs we have in relationships:

o   Positive face: The need to appear competent and to feel “included” or connected to others

o   Negative face: The need to feel freedom over our own actions (autonomy, independence)

·        Face concern: In any interaction, we can be concerned with both our own face (or image) and other face (the image of the other).

·        Means of expressing face needs/concerns:

o   Direct: We can address concerns with open, clear, efficient communication

o   Indirect: We can address concerns with hint, subtlety, and nuance


Face concerns can appear in all communication, even giving a lecture or when I write notes on your papers as I grade them. However, some types of communication are especially likely to challenge someone’s face (either the own or the other). These are known as face-threatening acts (FTAs).  Insults challenge the positive face of the other (make her or him appear incompetent or not included). Embarrassment challenges the face (positive) of the one embarrassed. Being late or making some other mistake challenges positive face. Giving an order challenges negative face, as it imposes one person’s will on the other (asking a direct request challenges face less, and using an indirect request even less).


Because many behaviors challenge face, authors Brown and Levinson argue that people in all cultures engage in positive and negative politeness behaviors. That is, we use behaviors to maintain or preserve positive and negative face, especially when we anticipate a challenge to face. That is, if I think that I am going to challenge someone’s face, either by making them feel incompetent (by offering a criticism, for example), or by imposing on their free will, I will often “buffer” the face threat with “politeness”: If I want your Budweiser, I might start with positive politeness to emphasize our connection (“You know I love you, man…”), or I could use negative politeness to give you a polite way out of the request (“If you have an extra Bud, could I have one?).


Conflict is a face-threatening act because it tends to challenge both positive and negative face—positive, because if I disagree with you (or raise my voice, or call you a meathead), I challenge your positive face. But by even trying to persuade you, I am challenging your negative face.


Forming the theory: Ting-Toomey basically makes a theory using three basic pieces. Walk through this and you will see that it is fairly simple:

·        Face (positive/negative) [really, more of the underlying theory that guides the theory—not a variable she measures]

·        Cultural and individual variables:

o   Individualism/collectivism: It seems like common sense that individualists will prefer self-face needs and negative face concerns, and collectivists other- and positive concerns. Individualists are more likely to use direct means to negotiate face and collectivists indirect means. This will also influence differences in strategy between in- and out-group members, especially for collectivists, for whom the boundary between in- and out-group is more solid.

o   Self-construal: Following a current trend in intercultural communication, Ting-Toomey notes that individuals are often different from cultures. Thus, a person can have an independent (view of self as separate from others) or interdependent (connected to others) self-construal, with same predictions as with I/C. I really want you to know that Self-construal refers to individuals while I/C refers to the culture!

o   Power distance: Depending on the power distance of a culture, lower and higher status individuals in the conflict might act differently.

·        Conflict negotiation styles: Finally, returning to the various conflict styles that Hall has summarized above, Ting-Toomey predicts that certain cultures (because of positive and negative needs, self- and other concerns) will have preferences for certain conflict styles. Basically,

o   Individualist cultures and people with independent self-construals will prefer strategies that require more direct addressing of conflict—specifically, dominating and collaborating (while collaborating is win-win, it does require open addressing of conflict, something many cultures do not prefer).

o   Collectivist cultures and people with interdependent self-construals will prefer strategies that are more indirect or allow conflict to remain subtle, unspoken, so as not to challenge the face of the other (avoiding, yielding, compromise)

o   Important note from early in the semester: individualism/collectivism ≠ self-construal! One describes a culture, and the other describes a characteristic of individual personality!

o   In 1998, Ting-Toomey added power distance to the theory: For example, low status individuals may respond with defensiveness to an FTA in a low PD culture, but with self-effacement (putting oneself down) in a high PD culture. High status individuals may use dominating strategies in low PD cultures, but shaming strategies in high PD cultures.


We know that these predictions are said to be true “all else being equal,” but one is left to wonder from much conflict research, if something is left out—the old phrase comes to mind, “Is that all there is?” For example, in one study, men are more indirect in their conflict style; but Tannen and other gender researchers say men are more direct. Could it be that men are more indirect in one context or topic area of conflict (e.g., relational conflict), but more direct in another area (idea or policy conflict)? Some of the research suggests that collectivists avoid conflict (though this may be an interpretation applied to all collectivists from research on East Asians, who have particular norms of propriety and discretion that may not apply to other collectivist cultures. Some, for example, Mediterranean cultures, might actually enjoy a good “debate” though might be indirect in other ways). But what if the topic is very important. Would need for efficiency in the modern economic world, or importance of a topic, override the cultural concerns for face-saving? Just some of my thoughts. . .


*      The axioms of Ting-Toomey’s theory (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998)

Here is a summary of the axioms of this theory. This is just to demonstrate to you what the theory looks like (that is, that it makes predictions about very specific variables, usually predicting conflict styles, directness/indirectness, self/other, and positive negative face (as dependent variables), with I/C, self-construal, and power distance. If you really want to make a good evaluation of the theory, you would actually need to have a good idea of the “visual” structure and complexity of the propositions. For example, only with this can you really address the “parsimony,” “testability,” or the “predictive validity” of the theory! (Is it relatively simple—that is, could variables or ideas be removed without harm to the predictions? Could the variables be measured in order to test the propositions (Note: testability does not refer to whether the theory can be “tested” in your everyday life! It refers to scientific testing through scientific method. The other—whether it applies to your life, refers to the practicality of the theory). You could only really know about “predictive validity” if the theory has research on it and the research shows that the predictions are accurate predictions.


Please read this theoretical essay to see how the authors write up the theory itself (our SPMR reading is a summary “translated” for the undergraduate reader, though with practical applications for resolving conflict!]. Ting-Toomey has an updated (2005) version of the theory, but it is much the same. Here I take the axioms (testable predictions) from the theory and break them out visually.



Individualistic cultures

Collectivistic cultures


Self-face maintenance messages

Other-, mutual-face maintenance msgs.


Self-face autonomy-preserving strategies

Other-face non-impositional stragegies


Self-face approval-seeking strategies

Other-face approval-enhancing strategies


Situational accounts (external causes) when FTA

Dispositional accounts (internal causes) when FTA


Direct, upfront facework strategies in conflict

Indirect, smoothing facework strategies in conflict


More dominating/competing conflict strategies

More avoiding/obliging conflict strategies


More substantive, outcome-oriented conflict strategies (e.g., substantive appeals, task-oriented integrating and compromising styles)

More relational, process-oriented conflict strategies (e.g., identity and ingroup-based appeals, relational integration and concession styles)



Low Power Distance

High Power Distance


Horizontal facework interaction (minimizing respect-deference distance)

Vertical facework interaction (maximizing respect-deference distance)


High-status members will use verbally direct facework strategies (e.g., disapproval: criticism, autonomy-threat: order) to induce compliance



Low-status members use self-face defensive strategies to counter FTA

Low-status members use self-effacing strategies to mitigate FTA


High-status members use more dominating conflict styles, verbally coercive tactics

High-status members use more shame-inducing relational conflict styles, indirect tactics


Low-status members use dominating conflict styles to resist compliance

Low-status members use obliging, avoiding, and neglect conflict styles [to resist compliance]



Self-face maintenance

Other-/Mutual-face maintenance


Self-face honoring or self-face enhancement interaction

Self-effacing, ingroup enhancement facework


Use of dominating/competing conflict management style

Use of avoiding/obliging conflict style


Substantive conflict resolution modes

Relatoinal conflict resolution modes



Independent Self-Construal

Interdependent Self-Construal


Dominating/competing conflict mgmt style

Avoiding/obliging conflict mgmt style


Substantive conflict resolution modes

Relational conflict resolution modes


31        Bi-construal  à positively related to substantive and relational conflict resolution modes

32        Ambivalent à negative associated with both substantive and conflict resolution modes


*      My Power Point summary of the theory (most important for quiz/exam! J

*      Someone else’s Power Point presentation of a brief summary of the theory

*      Outline, exercises, and resources on theory (Griffin, A First Look). Especially see students’ “application logs”

*      For more, see the ongoing work on intercultural conflict by John Oetzel, Ting-Toomey, and others. For example, the newest research introduces new conflict-resolution strategies especially useful in intercultural/cross-cultural contexts, such as third-party negotiation (having someone go between you and the person you’re having the conflict with).


*      Practical tips for the organizational trainer (Ting-Toomey 2015)

After you have read Ting-Toomey and Kurogi, you will see clear differences in the way she “translates” the material in the Samovar et al. reader for the undergraduate audience or organizational trainer. Read this chapter, though it will mostly give more everyday and understandable coverage of things such as individualism/collectivism, monochronic/ polychronic time differences, low and high context communication, and so on, as each relates to conflict. In other words, it provides a more everyday understanding of the things you should already have a good feeling for in other readings. Some important questions for our quiz:

·        What is the difference between independent and interdependent self-construal? What are differences between how individualistic cultures (and those with independent self-construal) and collectivistic cultures (and those with interdependent self-construal) might negotiate conflict (later in chapter)?

·        How might these relate to cultural-level individualism-collectivism?

·        What are some conflict differences between low- and high-context cultures?

·        What are some conflict differences between people with mono- and polychronic time orientations?

·        Note the inclusion of third-party conflict mediation (p. 360)—something that has emerged in some of Ting-Toomey’s research on cross-cultural conflict styles (with John Oetzel).

·        What are the equity and equality norms (p. 362), and which type of culture might prefer each?

·        At the end of the chapter are some helpful suggestions for dealing with intercultural conflict! Be sure to read these (they will help you see the practical usefulness of the theory), though they will not specifically be on the quiz.

Can you apply the theory?

Can you evaluate the theory?


Thought Box: Apply FNT to a conflict that you have had, even if it is not “intercultural.” (For example, it could be your self-construals that influenced your strategies). Which strategies did you choose, and what variables from the theory might be important? Do you see variables beyond the theory that might better help predict conflict?


Need an intercultural conflict / negotiation example? Consider this YouTube clip of the movie Gung Ho:  I often analyze clip from 0.44 to 2.47, but the whole video works!). Btw, I think it adds some interesting contextual notions to conflict (home versus workplace!). Keep in mind—it’s Hollywood, and may not accurately reflect real or contemporary Japanese culture.




Great practice for theory paper ! After you have read both the “undergrad” version of FNT (MN&F reader) and the on-line version (Ting-Toomey & Kurogi, 1998), provide your own evaluation of the strengths and limitations of the theory. Be sure to use proper theory evaluation standards.



Journal ideas/thought questions:


·        Tell about an intergroup (e.g., interracial/ethnic, gay/straight, etc.) conflict that you have had—how well did you “manage” the conflict, according to Gudykunst’s suggestions at the end of Ch. 9. Now, having read this webpage and his suggestions, what might you do differently next time?

·        Describe a conflict that you have had in the past with someone from another culture or group. Would you call it intercultural or intergroup? Even if you do not see differences in your cultural approaches to conflict, use the case as a way to apply various notions from Ting-Toomey’s face theory of conflict negotiation (positive/negative face, self/other face needs, etc.). Be ready to write an essay using Ting-Toomey’s theory of face & conflict.


Thought Box: FNT says nothing about intergroup conflict, for example, conflict between Blacks and Whites or other groups where power implications, stereotypes, and prejudices are involved (hmmm…a possible critique of the theory? Or is it just beyond the theory’s “scope”?). Describe an interethnic or other intergroup conflict that you have had. What are some ways that you thought the groups differed? What are some other “variables” that would predict conflict behaviors or that would lead to reduction of conflict?


OR: Provide solutions for intergroup conflict. (BTW, the Dace & McPhail reading may speak to this.


Cultural conflict on the Web

·        Example of an intercultural conflict:

·        Hennipen Tech training video:


Towards the Exam:

·        Gudykunst’s types of conflict

·        Some Black/White differences in conflict

·        5 patterns for negotiating conflict (Rahim)

·        Main ideas from Ting-Toomey’s theory!

o   Positive and negative face

o   Self and other face

o   Direct and indirect means of negotiating face

o   Conflict, FTA, 5 conflict resolution patterns

o   Factors that influence: I/C, self-construal, power distance

o   Preferred conflict patterns for I/C or Indep/Interdep self-construal



Collier, M. J. (1991). Conflict competence within African, Mexican, and Anglo-American friendships. In S. Ting-Toomey & F. Korzenny (Eds.), Cross-cultural interpersonal communication (pp. 132-154). Newbury Park: Sage.

Collier, M. J. (1996). Communication competence problematic in ethnic friendships. Communication Monograph 63, 314-336.

Gudykunst, W. B. (2004). Bridging differences: Effective intergroup communication (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

McPhail, T. L. (2002). Global communication: Theories, stakeholders, & trends. Boston: Allyn & Bacon

Ting-Toomey, S. (1986). Conflict communication styles in Black and White subjective subcultures. In Y. Y. Kim (Ed.), Interethnic communication (pp. 75-88). Newbury Park: Sage.


For more on Ting-Toomey’s Theory, see:

Ting-Toomey, S. (1988). Intercultural conflict styles: A face-ne-gotiation theory. In Y.Y.Kim & W.B. Gudykunst (Eds.), Theories in intercultural communication (pp. 213-235). Newbury Park: Sage.

Ting-Toomey, S. (2005). Identity negotiation theory: Crossing national boundaries. In W. B. Gudykunst (Ed.), Theorizing intercultural communication (pp. 211-233). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ting-Toomey, S., & Kurogi, A. (1998). Facework competence in intercultural conflict: An updated face-negotiation theory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 22, 187-225.

Ting-Toomey, S., & Oetzel, J. (2001). Managing intercultural conflict effectively. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ting-Toomey, S., & Oetzel, J. (2003). Cross-cultural face concerns and conflict styles: Current status and future directions. In W. B. Gudykunst & W. B. Mody (Eds.), Handbook of International and Intercultural Communication (2nd ed., pp. 143-163). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


RESEARCH on theory: Available on request