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Cultural Styles of Conflict Management in Japanese

and Americans: Passivity, Covertness, and


Effectiveness of Strategies'
KEN-ICHIOHBUCHI~

YUMI

Tohoku University
Sendai, Japan

TAKAHASHI

Konan Women's University


Kobe, Japan

We asked 94 Japanese and 98 American students to report their recent experiences


with interpersonal conflicts; they reported 476 episodes. The content analyses of
these episodes were conducted in terms of desired and engaged conflict management
strategies, effectiveness of chosen strategies, covertness of conflicts, and motives
for covertness. Strategies other than simple avoidance were coded into four types,
based on Falbo and Peplau's (1980) model. As a result, a particularly strong tendency
to avoid conflict was found among Japanese subjects, who were motivated by both
their desire to preserve relationships and their perceptions of shared responsibility.
These findings were interpreted in terms of cross-cultural concepts of collectivism
versus individualism (Triandis, 1989a) and independent versus interdependent self
(Markus & Kitayama, 1991).

Conflicts are characterized by opposing interests or disagreements among


people. Tedeschi, Schlenker, and Bonoma (1973) defined a conflict as an
interpersonal situation in which a goal, wish, or expectation of one person is
interfered with by another person. Pointing out that interference is experienced
at cognitive and affective levels, as well as at the behavioral level, Kelley
(1987) stressed that some conflict is covert, that is, a person may perceive
interference but not express it.
Conflict is inevitable. However, in each case, its consequences depend on
how the conflicting parties cope with, resolve, or manage it. Researchers have
observed and classified several distinct management strategy types (Hocker &
Wilmot, 1991; Kipnis, Schmidt, & Wilkinson, 1980). Those that an individual
may use to deal with a particular conflict are determined by a wide range of
factors: situational factors such as goals or issues (Ohbuchi & Baba, 1988;
'The authors wish to express their gratitude to James T. Tedeschi and Megumi Hosoda of
the State University of New York, Charles R. Galbraith of Sam Houston State University,
Mimi Will of Foothill College, and Susan Sprecher of Illinois State University for collecting
the data and for valuable comments on our survey.
2Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Ken-Ichi Ohbuchi,
Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University, Sendai, Japan.

1345
Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1994, 24, 15, pp. 1345-1366.
Copyright 0 1994 by V. H. Winston & Son, Inc. All rights reserved.

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OHBUCHI AND TAKAHASHI

Rule, Bisanz, & Kohn, 1985) and personal factors such as gender (Falbo &
Peplau, 1980; Howard, Blumstein, & Schwartz, 1986; Instone, Major, & Bunker, 1983), developmental levels (Cowan, Drinkard, & MacGavin, 1984; Ohbuchi & Yamamoto, 1990), or individual style (Chanin & Schneer, 1984;
Leyva & Furth, 1986; Sternberg & Soriano, 1984).

Cultural Styles of Conflict Management: Mitigation or Confrontation


There may be cultural differences in reactions to conflicts. At any given
moment, countless conflicts emerge between nations or ethnic groups regarding ideological or economic matters, many of which precipitate intense hostility and all of its by-products. We assumed here that cultural differences in
conflict management styles might make some intercultural conflicts difficult to
resolve. A management style that is desirable within one culture may be
unacceptable within another. In order to cope with intercultural conflicts, then,
it is imperative that we refine our understanding of cultural styles of conflict
management. In the present study, we approached this task using Japanese and
American students as samples.
Researchers have assumed some dimensions in cultural variations
(Hofstede, 1980; Triandis, 1989a). Among them, the most important is that of
collectivism versus individualism (Triandis, 1989a, 1989b). In collectivistic
cultures, group goals are given priority over personal goals, group norms and
integrity are highly valued, and interpersonal relationships are characterized by
hierarchy and interdependence. Collectivistic people strive to control their
behavior with the goal of maintaining harmonious relations with others. In
individualistic cultures, by contrast, a higher priority is attached to the attainment of personal goals, and interpersonal relationships are horizontal among
independent individuals. Individualists strive for personal satisfaction, but
they neither avoid competition nor do they suppress the urge to assert themselves. Individualism is dominant among Western cultures, whereas collectivism is dominant among Asian ones.
Collectivists such as the Japanese supposedly avoid confrontation in interpersonal conflicts (Barnlund, 1989; Lebra, 1976; Ozaki, 1978), but there is
little empirical evidence to support such a supposition. By using a self-defense
scale, Barnlund (1975) measured the reactions of Japanese and Americans to
threats perceived in conversation. The Japanese were found to be more likely
than Americans to avoid topics that they perceived as being a threat to their
relationship.
Leung ( 1 987) examined preferences for dispute resolution procedures between Chinese (collectivists) and Americans (individualists) by asking them to
role play a hypothetical scenario. The collectivists were found to be more likely

CULTURAL STYLES OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

1347

than the individualists to prefer nonadversarial procedures over adversarial


ones; the nonadversarial procedures were perceived by the subjects as being
more capable of reducing animosity. In the present study, then, we attempted
to examine such cultural styles of conflict management through content analysis of conflict episodes experienced by subjects in real social interactions.
The nonadversarial procedures preferred by Leungs Chinese subjects were
negotiation and mediation. These procedures required participants or third
parties either to propose integrative or compromising resolutions or to tenaciously persuade one of the conflicting parties. Consequently, they were regarded as active mitigating strategies. However, there were also passive styles
of mitigating strategies. One was to refrain from direct self-assertion but to
indirectly communicate ones desires or expectations. Another-avoidanceinvolved refusing both overt recognition of a conflict and engagement in any
active action toward its resolution. Some researchers have remarked that such
passive mitigating strategies would be preferred by collectivists (TingToomey, 1988). In the present study, we focused in particular on the activity
and passivity of Japanese and American mitigating strategies.
Public and Private Reactions to Conflicts

Triandis (1989b) assumed that Japanese culture was not only collectivistic
but also tight, whereas American culture was individualistic and loose. Tight
cultures are characterized as homogeneous value systems that impose severe
social sanctions against deviance. Their members live under strong social
pressures toward conformity or appropriateness of behaviors; thus, they tend to
suppress private attributes in public situations. Markus and Kitayama (1991)
stressed this point by positing that the Japanese have interdependent selves,
clearly distinguished from the independent selves of individualists. Among
people having interdependent selves, the expression of self-focused emotions
such as pride or anger, which reflect personal satisfaction or frustration, are
frequently suppressed because they are believed to destroy social harmony.
Both theories assumed that the Japanese would more clearly differentiate
the public and private aspects of their social interactions than would the
Americans. In public situations, the Japanese behave in a very polite and
formalized manner, but their behaviors frequently do not express their private
desires, attitudes, or affects. Among Americans, in contrast, public and private
selves are not so partitioned: Americans tend to express their private attributes
in virtually any kind of situation. Based on this assumption, we expected that
greater differences between public and private aspects of reactions to conflicts
would be observed among Japanese than among Americans.
When people encounter conflicts, they may conceive of a wide variety of

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OHBUCHI AND TAKAHASHI

possible strategies for resolution of those conflicts. Of the available possibilities, they would privately choose those that are perceived as being the most
functional in terms of personal goals. Because of perceived social constraints
in the conflict situations, however, their desired strategies may not necessarily
be engaged. In collectivistic and tight cultures, especially, people may screen
their choices to comply with a restriction that they should avoid confrontation
in order to maintain social harmony. Nonconfrontational strategies, particularly passive types, involve actors intense self-control or self-regulation of
personal desires. For individualistic and loose cultures, on the other hand, the
social frame of strategy selection may not be as strict; thus, people may engage
in the same strategies in which they privately want to engage. Using the above
reasoning, we hypothesized that differences between privately desired strategies and actually engaged strategies would be greater among the Japanese than
among the Americans.
Conflict Management and OvertnessKovertness of Conflicts

Researchers have made many efforts to elaborate a systematic scheme of


conflict management strategies, one widely known example of which was first
conceptualized by Blake, Shepard, and Mouton (1964) and was later developed
by Thomas and Kilmann ( I 974) and Filley (1975) as conflict handling modes.
According to this scheme, five distinctive modes of strategy are located on a
conceptual area defined in relation to two axes: concern for the self and
concern for the other. These modes are collaboration, accommodation, competition, compromise, and avoidance. The scheme has been used frequently in
research of organizational conflicts (Rahim, 1983; Thomas & Kilmann, 1978)
and has recently been refined with regard to both measurement procedures
(Rahim, 1986) and conceptual formulation (Camevale & Pruitt, 1992; Hocker
& Wilmot, 1991). However, it has been criticized (Volkema & Bergmann,
1989) on a number of points. First, it was theoretically constructed, rather than
empirically based. Second, it is doubtful whether the five modes offered
encompass the full range of peoples reactions to conflicts. Third, descriptions
of these modes are considered unnecessarily abstract and vague.
Another popular scheme is Falbo and Peplaus two dimensional model of
power strategies (1980), which has been used mainly for research on conflicts
in intimate relationships such as those of couples or friends. This model was
inductively constructed, that is, the authors derived directness and bilaterality
dimensions from the MSD of many empirically collected power strategies.
Bilaterality is a continuum extending from hlly bilateral to fully unilateral.
References to this continuum denote the degree to which an actor considers
an opponents wishes and circumstances. Consequently, it can be seen as

CULTURAL STYLES OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

1349

consisting of concern for the self and concern for the other-axes of the
conflict:handling modes. Directness is, on the other hand, a unique dimension
existing between poles of total directness and total indirectness. This dimension represents the extent to which an actor directly communicates his or her
goals or wishes to his or her opponent. By coordinating these dimensions, every
strategy can be categorized into one of four types: direct bilateral, direct
unilateral, indirect bilateral, and indirect unilateral. This schemes usefulness
has been demonstrated in coding conflict responses (Cowan et al., 1984; Falbo,
1977; Ohbuchi & Yamamoto, 1990).
However, this model is limited in terms of its applicability. As implied by
the term power strategy, it is applicable only to active behavioral reactions to
conflicts. However, some conflict researchers noted that there can be a nonactive reaction strategy to conflicts, that is, avoidance (cf. Hocker & Wilmot,
1991). Avoidance is not included in Falbo and Peplaus (1980) mode, but
Peterson and Peterson (1990) and Volkema and Bergmann (1989) stressed that
avoidance is an important conflict management strategy. Accordingly, for the
present study, we supposed that a comprehensive system for charting conflict
management strategies would necessarily include avoidance, which we added
to Falbo and Peplaus model.
In addition to management strategies, we focused on the actual conflicts
overtness or covertness-the question of whether the presence of a conflict was
recognized by both parties. When an offending party was perceived as being
aware of interfering with the other, the conflict was initially overt. When he or
she was not aware, however, the victim had to decide whether to make the
conflict overt. Although the decision itself is not a resolution strategy, it has an
important relevance for the selection of strategies. If the actor selects some
active resolution behavior, whether confrontational or collaborative, the conflict may be made overt. If the actor selects some passive strategy, the conflict
may be made covert. Therefore, we expected cultural differences in the
overtnessicovertness of conflicts-specifically, that the Japanese would make
conflicts covert more frequently than the Americans.
Effectiveness of Management Strategies

In the selection of strategies, perceived effectiveness was expected to be a


universal criterion. We can assume that, in any culture, people choose and
execute strategies that they believe will be effective in resolving their conflicts.
If we observe cultural differences in strategy preference, those differences may
imply that effective strategies vary across cultures. One purpose of the present
study was, therefore, to examine whether effective strategies differ significantly between the Japanese and Americans. On the assumption of particular

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OHBUCHI AND TAKAHASHI

Japanese preferences, we predicted that Japanese subjects would perceive


mitigating strategies as being more effective than confrontational ones and that
they would perceive passive strategies as being more effective than active ones.
For Americans, we predicted an opposite set of perceptions.
Among studies of conflict management strategies, those dealing directly
with effectiveness issues are rare. An exception is Ohbuchi and Kitanaka
(1991), wherein the authors attempted to examine the effectiveness of various
types of power strategies. In that experiment, Japanese students were exposed
to three different hypothetical conflicts, in which an actor was engaged in one
of four strategy types based on two dimensions presented by Falbo and Peplau
(1980). The subjects were asked how they would accept each of the strategy
types if they were the targets of those strategies. The subjects were observed to
accept the direct strategies more readily than the indirect ones, and they
accepted the bilateral strategies more readily than the unilateral ones. As a
result, the study showed the prominent effectiveness of the direct bilateral
strategy.
In this study, we asked subjects to rate the effectiveness of strategies in
which they had actually engaged. Ohbuchi and Kitanaka (199 1) showed that,
among the Japanese, the direct bilateral strategies-that is, active, mitigating
strategies-were the most effective. But what about Americans? In this case,
we also attempted to examine the relationship between the strategies perceived effectiveness and their selection.
Method
Subjects

In the United States, 98 students participated in the research: 2 1 males and


13 females at New York State University at Albany, 14 males at Illinois State
University at Normal, 1 male and 15 females at Sam Houston State University
of Texas at Huntsville, and 14 males and 20 females at Foothill College at Los
Altos Hills in California. All of them were born in the United States, although
we did not inquire about ethnicity. In Japan, 94 Japanese students participated:
48 males and 33 females at Tohoku University and 4 males and 9 females at
Tohoku Fukushi University in Sendai. Because the United States covers a very
large area and we anticipated regional cultural differences, we collected our
data from a number of regions. Since Japan, in contrast, was assumed to be a
very homogeneous country, we collected our Japanese data only in Sendai city.
In both samples, we selected only students who were younger than 30,
although the American students were significantiy older than the Japanese, t =
13.91, df= 3 1 3 . 3 3 , ~< .001. The mean age ofthe Japanese students was 20.36,

CULTURAL STYLES OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

1351

ranging from 18 to 28, whereas that of the American students was 24.37, ranging from 17 to 29. Since previous research has suggested that an actors age or
developmental level may affect his or her decision on conflict management
strategies (e.g., Cowan et al., 1984), we must consider such an age difference
when we compare the conflict management strategies of these two samples.
Procedures and Questionnaire of Conflict Experiences

We asked the subjects to recall all of the interpersonal conflicts that they
had experienced over the past several weeks. We presented them with our
definition of conflicts as overt or covert opposition or disagreement with
others or interpersonal occurrences that involve perceived interference with
your goal attainment. Subsequently, we gave examples of conflicts such as
having a difference of opinion with someone or being interfered with, refused,
criticized, aggressed, slandered, disappointed, or physically or psychologically
harmed by someone. We also emphasized that conflicts are sometimes only
subjectively perceived and are not expressed in overt behaviors.
We then asked the subjects to report each of the conflicts as directed by a
questionnaire requesting the following information:
1. The subjects were asked to describe what they had wanted to do in order
to resolve the conflict (the desired strategy).
2. The subjects were asked to describe what they actually had done to
resolve the conflict (the engaged strategy).
3. The subjects were asked if the opponent had been aware of his or her
interfering with them or if they had made the interference clear (overtness vs.
covertness of conflict).
4. If the subjects answered that the opponent had not been aware of hidher
interference and that they had not let the opponent know it, they were asked to
describe their reasons for not having made the conflict overt.
5. On a 5-point scale ranging from not at all (1) to perfectly attained (5),
the subjects were asked about the outcomes of their conflicts, that is, they were
asked to rate the extent to which the outcomes agreed with their initial goals or
desires.
6. Finally, the subjects were asked to rate, on a 5-point scale, how important the conflicts were to them. The scale ranged from not at all (1) to extremely
important (5).

The questionnaire requested more information about the subjects conflict


experiences than the points listed, but the responses given were not analyzed
in the present study.

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OHBUCHI AND TAKAHASHI

Coding of Conflict Management Strategies

Falbo and Peplau (1 980) identified 13 different conflict management strategies. In order to enhance the applicability of that model, Ohbuchi and Yamamot0 (1990) added several more. In Figure 1, these conflict management strategies are classified into four types that were made by crossing the dimensions
of directness and bilaterality. Because avoidance was not included in the twodimensional scheme, we treated it as a separate type. Avoidance was defined
as no active reaction to the interference or compliance with the opponents.
Two raters, trained in advance to code the strategies, independently read the
subjects responses and identified their strategies. If a response was judged as
containing more than one strategy, the raters coded the dominant one. Interrater
agreements were 81.9% on the desired strategies and 78.8% on the engaged
strategies. When the raters disagreed, they conferred to determine the appropriate coding.
Motives for Making Conflicts Covert

The reasons described by the subjects were classified into the following six
categories, which were determined in a previous study (Ohbuchi, 199 1):
1. Maintenance of relationship: The subjects tolerated the interference in
order to maintain a good relationship with the other participants.
2. Prevention of conflict escalation: The subjects tolerated the interference in order to avoid evoking a counteraction from the other participants.
3. No solution: The subjects had no idea of how to resolve the conflicts.
4. Sharing responsibility: The subjects chose to tolerate the interference
because they believed that they shared responsibility for the situation.
5 . Nonseriousness of the conflicts: The subjects judged that the conflicts
were not serious enough to warrant efforts to resolve them.
6. Miscellaneous: Any reasons not identified as one of the above categories.

Two raters independently categorized the subjects responses. Interrater


agreement was 82.8%. As above, in cases of disagreement, the raters conferred
to determine the appropriate coding.
Results
Number of Reported Conflicts and Their Perceived Importance

The total number of conflict episodes reported by the subjects was 476,
yielding an average of 2.48. An ANOVA of the number of reported episodes,

CULTURAL STYLES OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

1353

Bilateral
Persuasion
Bargaining
Compromise

Suggesting
Ingratiation
Impression
Management
Appeasing

Direct

Indirect
Sadness

Asking

Crying
Detour

Supplicating
Assertion
Threat

Laissez-faire
Seeking
Supporter
Deception

Coercion
Criticism

Unilateral

Figure 1. Conflict management strategies based on Flabo and Peplaus two


dimensional model.
using culture and sex as independent variables, illustrated a significant difference between the Japanese and American students, F(1,188) = 3 2 . 7 6 , ~
< .001,
but sex difference was not significant. The Japanese students reported more
conflicts than the Americans ( M = 3.05 vs. 1.93). Such a cultural difference
suggested several interpretations. First, the American students might have been
less sensitive to interference than the Japanese. Second, the Americans might
have been less obedient than the Japanese to the instructions. Third, the
American students might have recalled only conflicts that were more serious
or important than those of the Japanese. This final possibility was very important because it implied some qualitative differences between the conflicts
reported by the American students and those reported by the Japanese students.
In the present study, we asked the subjects to rate each of their recalled
conflicts on its importance. Then, we performed an ANOVA for the perceived
importance of each conflict, with culture and sex as independent variables. In
this analysis, the samples were not the subjects but the reported episodes.
Consistent with the last of our above interpretations, the American students
were found to rate the reported conflicts as being more important than those
rated by the Japanese, F(1,386) = 2 3 . 5 4 , ~< .001 ( M = 3.36 vs. 2.66). In order

1354

OHBUCHI AND TAKAHASHI

to examine a possibility that the Japanese favored the middle points of the scale
to a greater extent than the Americans, we conducted a F-test on the two
groups scores. The results showed no significant difference between the
groups variances, p < .20, thereby negating the possibility of response set
differences between the Japanese and Americans. Although both groups were
given the same definition of the word conflict on the face sheet of their
questionnaires, these analyses suggested that the American students might
have understood it to connote a more serious interpersonal problem than did
the Japanese. In the following analyses, therefore, we took the perceived
importance of the conflicts as a moderating variable, which might interact with
the cultural variable.
Effectiveness of Conflict Management Strategies

In advance of the analysis of strategy selection, we examined the perceived


effectiveness of the strategies. Ohbuchi and Kitanaka (1991) treated the recipients acceptance of strategies as the index of their effectiveness. In the present
study, however, we focused on the actors perceived degree of goal attainment.
An ANOVA was performed on these ratings, using engaged strategy types,
culture, and sex as independent variables. Again, the samples of this analysis
were the reported episodes. Significant differences in perceived goal attainment were found only between strategy types, F(4,433) = 7 . 8 4 , <
~ .001. The
means were 3.26 for direct bilateral, 2.84 for direct unilateral, 2.74 for indirect
bilateral, 2.84 for indirect unilateral strategies, and 2.17 for avoidance. The
Newman-Keuls test indicated that the perceived goal attainment was significantly greater when the subjects engaged in behavioral strategies than when
they avoided the conflicts, p < .05, and was nonsignificantly greater when the
subjects engaged in direct bilateral strategies than when they engaged in the
other strategy type presented in Falbo and Peplaus model, p < . l o . According to the criteria outlined above, direct bilateral strategies were rated as the
most effective, whereas avoidance was rated as the least effective, and the
strategies were perceived as being equally effective by both the Japanese and
the Americans.
Selection of Conflict Management Strategies

In the analyses of this section, the samples were the reported episodes, not
the subjects. Since most of the subjects reported more than one episode, the
following results might be slightly biased by individual differences. However,
because the number of subjects was satisfactorily large, it seemed reasonable
to interpret the results in terms of group variables such as culture.

CULTURAL STYLES OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

40

1355

Japanese

Amer icans

Avo idance

Direct-Uni l a t e r a l
Indirect-Uni l a t e r a l
l n d i rect-Bi l a t e r a l
Di rect-Bi l a t e r a l

Figure 2. Percentages of the desired strategies among the Japanese and American students.

Figure 2 shows the percentages of the strategy types desired by Americans


and Japanese. The distribution of the desired strategy types differ significantly
between these groups, x2 = 3 1.74, df = 4, p < .OO 1, suggesting large differences
between the desired strategies of the Japanese and the Americans. Nevertheless, we must check the possibility that such differences were only superficial.
As we noted, the Japanese students differed significantly from the Americans
in terms of age and the perceived importance of reported conflicts, either of
which factors might have influenced their selection of strategies and, therefore,
created apparent cultural differences. To test this possibility, we conducted a
loglinear analysis with a model of Desired Strategy Type x Culture x Sex x
Age x Importance of Conflicts. We interpreted its results in terms of the effects
of culture, sex, and age, as well as the importance of conflicts and of their
interactions with the desired strategies.
All variables were categorical. The level 1 of sex was male, and the level 2
was female. The level 1 of culture was Japanese, and the level 2 was American.
For age and importance of conflicts, we made new dummy variables consisting
of two levels. Because the median age was 2 1 , the level 1 was younger than 22
and the level 2 was 22 or older. The median rating of importance was 3. Consequently, the level I was lower than the rating 3 and the level 2 was the rating

1356

OHBUCHI AND TAKAHASHI

Table 1

Significant Parameter Estimates of Loglinear Analysis of Desired Strategy x


Culture x Sex x Age x Importance of Conjlict
Independent variables
Strategies
Avoidance
Direct bilateral
Direct unilateral
Indirect bilateral
Indirect unilateral

Culture
.06
-.32*
.16
.35
-.25

Age

.08
-.23*
-.16
.20
.11

Age x Importance
-.33*
-.01
.31*
.20
-.17

Note. The figures are parameter estimates for the cells made of a combination
of the level 1 categories of each independent variable. The estimates with an
asterisk were significant at .05 level.
3 or higher. The analysis was done with SPSSX HILOGLINEAR procedure^.^
Table 1 shows the effects that involved significant parameter estimates by
the loglinear analysis. The effect of Desired Strategy Type x Culture was significant, but no other effects involving culture were significant. Therefore, it is
possible to interpret Figure 2 as having presented cultural differences. According to the parameter estimates of Table 1, the American students wanted to use
the direct bilateral strategies significantly more often than did the Japanese. In
the loglinear analysis, the cultural differences were not significant on any other
strategies. The significant effect of Desired Strategy Type x Age was that the
older subjects wanted to use direct bilateral strategies more often than did the
younger subjects (42.3% and 23.2%). The effect of Desired Strategy x Age x
Importance was that, in the unimportant conflicts, the younger subjects wanted
to use the direct unilateral strategies more often than did the older subjects
(39.8% and 23.3%). However, in the important conflicts, the younger subjects
preferred avoidance more often than did the older subjects (25.7% and 5.8%).
Figure 3 shows the percentages of the strategy types actually engaged by
the American and Japanese students. Differences were also highly significant
here, x2 = 56.17, df = 4,p < .001. We conducted a loglinear analysis with a
3The loglinear analysis was performed with the SPSSX HILOGLINEAR program featured
in IBM3090 of the Education Center for Information Processing at Tohoku University.

CULTURAL STYLES OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

40

1357

Japanese

Amer i cans

30
20

10
n
U

Avoidance

D i rect-Uni lateral

Di rect-Bi lateral

indirect-hi lateral
Indirect-Bi lateral

Figure 3. Percentages of the engaged strategies among the Japanese and


American students.

model of Engaged Strategy Type x Culture x Sex x Age x Importance of


Conflicts. The significant parameter estimates are represented in Table 2. The
significant effect of Engaged Strategy Type x Culture was, as Figure 3 shows,
that the Japanese students actually engaged in avoidance and the indirect
bilateral strategies more often than did the Americans, and they used the direct
bilateral and indirect unilateral strategies less often. The significant effect of
Engaged Strategy Type x Culture x Age was that the cultural difference in the
engaged avoidance was only seen among the younger students: The percentages were 52.9 for the younger Japanese and 15.6 for the younger Americans,
but they were 29.3 for the older Japanese and 24.3 for the older Americans. The
effects of Engaged Strategy x Age x Importance and of Engaged Strategy x
Sex x Age were interpretable in the effect of Engaged Strategy Type x Sex x
Age x Importance-that is, the older male students enacted the direct unilateral
strategies more frequently in the important conflicts than in the unimportant
one (3 1.9%and O%), and similar differences were found for the younger female
students (19.6% and 5.9%).
Differences Between Desired and Engaged Strategies

We tested the differences between desired and engaged strategies sepa-

-.02
.46*
-.28'

-.44**

.28*

.05

.30*
-.11
-.07
-.07

.38*
.02
-.23

.oo

-.I7
-.23
.32*
-.06
.12

-.15

-.19
.37*
.16
-.19

-.15

Culture Culture x Age Age x Importance Sex x Age Sex x Age x Importance

Note. The figures are parameter estimates for the cells made of a combination of the level 1 categories of each
independent variable. The estimates with a double asterisk are significant at .01, those with a single asterisk are
significant at .05 level, and those with a plus sign are significant at .10 level.

Avoidance
Direct bilateral
Direct unilateral
Indirect bilateral
Indirect unilateral

Engaged strategies

Independent variables

Signijkant Parameter Estimates of Loglinear Analysis of Engaged Strategy x Culture x Sex x Age x
Importance of Conflict

Table 2

CULTURAL STYLES OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

1359

rately for the Japanese and the Americans. In both groups, the differences
were significant, x2 = 58.39, df= 4 , p < .001, for the Japanese; x2 = 11.41, df =
4, p < .05, for the Americans. In both samples, direct bilateral strategies
were enacted significantly less often than desired, p < .O1, while avoidance
was enacted significantly more frequently than desired, p < .05. The Japanese also enacted the direct unilateral strategies less frequently than they
desired, p < .01. Figure 2 and 3 show that the differences between the
desired and engaged strategies were larger among the Japanese than among the
Americans.

Covert Versus Overt Conflicts


Two thirds (65.6%) of the conflicts reported by the Japanese were covert,
compared with only one forth (26.7%) of those reported by the Americans. The
cultural difference was highly significant, x2 = 70.23, df = 1, p < .001, and,
therefore, occasioned a loglinear analysis with a model of Covertness of
Conflicts x Culture x Sex x Age x Importance of Conflict. Only two effects
that involved the covertness of the conflict were found to have significant
parameter estimates: Covertness x Culture (parameter estimate = .38,p < .001)
and Covertness x Culture x Age (parameter estimate = -.26, p < .Ol). These
effects indicate that, among the Japanese, the younger students made the
conflicts covert more frequently than did the older students (70.5% and 46.6%),
whereas both the younger and older American students made the conflicts
covert (15.6% and 29.7%) less frequently than did the Japanese. As a result, the
cultural difference between covertness rates was larger among the younger
students than the older.
In this research, we obtained a total of 238 covert conflicts, of which 79%
were reported by the Japanese students. Table 3 shows the reasons that the
subjects provided for covertness. The chi-square test performed separately for
each groups motive categories yielded significant differences only for the
Japanese students, x2 = 78.18, df = 5 , p < .001. This table suggests that, for
the Japanese, the most important reasons for covertness were a desire to
maintain personal relationships and a feeling of shared responsibility for the
conflicts.
We assumed that the selection of strategies would correspond closely to the
covertness (or overtness) of the conflicts. A loglinear analysis with a model of
Covertness of Conflicts x Engaged Strategy Type x Culture x Sex revealed, as
predicted, a highly significant effect of Covertness x Engaged Strategy Type.
Table 4 shows parameter estimates of this effect and percentages of each
engaged strategy type in the covert and overt conflicts. Avoidance was engaged
in only when the conflicts were covert, whereas direct strategies were

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OHBUCHI AND TAKAHASHI

Table 3
Percentages of Motives for Making Conflict Covert Among the Japanese and
American Students

To maintain the relationship


To avoid escalation of the conflict
No prospect for resolution
Shared responsibility for the conflict
Not a serious conflict
Miscellaneous

Japanese

Americans

26.9
8.0
10.5
22.3
8.4
2.9

4.6
4.2
2.9
3.8
2.1
3.4

Note. Based only on the episodes in which conflicts were made covert, the
figures represent the percentage of subjects who chose each motive.

Table 4
Percentages of Engaged Strategy Types Used in Overt and Covert Conflicts
and Parameter Estimates of Overtness x Engaged Strategy in Loglinear
Analysis

Engaged strategies
Avoidance
Direct bilateral
Direct unilateral
Indirect bilateral
Indirect unilateral

% in overt
conflicts

% in covert
conflicts

Parameter
estimates

5.9
30.7
39.5
6.7
17.2

69.2
4.2
5.5
8.4
12.7

-1.38*
.70*
.81*

.oo

-.13

Note. Parameter estimates are those for the cells made of a combination of the
level 1 categories of each variable. The estimates with an asterisk are significant at .01 level.

frequently used when the conflicts were overt. Since the other independent
variables did not interact with this effect, the relationship between the covertness of conflicts and the chosen strategies was regarded as being consistent
across cultures and sex.

CULTURAL STYLES OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

1361

Discussion
Conflict Management Strategies and Overtness/Covertness of Conflicts
A close relationship was observed between conflict management strategies
and the overtness/covertness of conflicts. The subjects most frequently engaged in direct strategies during overt conflicts, whereas, in covert conflicts,
they showed a strong tendency toward avoidance or other indirect strategies. It
is important to note that overtness/covertness is associated with the distinction
between active and passive styles of conflict resolution. An actor will most
likely make a conflict overt if he or she intends to resolve it actively-that
is, either confrontatively or mitigatively. Conversely, if the actor chooses a
more cautious and passive approach to the situation, the conflict will most
likely be covert. Thus, the decision regarding the overtness/covertness of
conflicts should be regarded as a critical stage in the process of conflict
management.
Cultural Styles in Conflict Management
These results may correct the simple formulation that, in conflict situations,
individualists prefer confrontation, whereas collectivists prefer mitigation.
They also suggest variation within collectivistic cultures in that, in conflict
resolution styles, Japanese subjects seemed more passive than the Chinese
subjects studied previously. The last point appears consistent with Triandis
(1989b) suggestion that the Japanese may have a tighter culture than the
Chinese, based on the reasoning that the greater passivity demonstrated by the
Japanese subjects was shaped by strong pressures toward social harmony. In
the present study, we obtained several additional findings implying such social
pressures. One regarded the large differences between the Japanese students
desired and engaged strategies. Another regarded the significant number who
gave maintenance of relationships and self-blame as reasons for making their
conflicts covert.
However, methodological differences necessitate caution in comparing
Leungs results with those of the current study. Leung presented subjects with
only a hypothetical case involving a monetary issue and, more importantly,
asked them to rate only active strategies. Therefore, the possibility remains
that, given the chance, the Chinese subjects might have chosen passive strategies as readily as the Japanese students in the present study.
Effectiveness and Selection of Strategies
Overall, the subjects rated the direct bilateral strategies as being the most
effective, although at a .10 level of significance. These results are consistent
with Ohbuchi and Kitanakas (1991) role-playing study. It is noteworthy, then,

1362

OHBUCHI AND TAKAHASHI

that similar results were obtained from the two studies using quite different
methods, suggesting validity. Another finding, regarding the effectiveness of
strategies, was that the subjects perceived avoidance as the strategy contributing the least to goal attainment. This finding is also consistent with the theoretical analyses of resolution strategies (Fiiley, 1975; Hocker & Wilmot, 1991). It
is somewhat surprising, however, that the Japanese and American students did
not differ significantly in their perceptions of the effectiveness of strategies.
It would be rational to predict that the subjects would engage in strategies
that they perceived as being the most effective. Accordingly, as Figure 3
shows, the American students strategy selection levels generally were closely
related to perceived effectiveness; however, such was clearly not the case for
the Japanese students, who very frequently did not engage in the direct bilateral
strategies, opting instead for avoidance.
At the same time, for both the American and Japanese groups, it can be seen
that the strategies that were desired were those that they perceived as being
more effective. This suggests that, when subjects privately considered strategies, they perceived effectiveness as being an important criterion. In an actual
conflict situation, however, immediate factors frequently overrode the implementation of their preferred strategies. The fact that the Japanese students
showed larger differences than the American students between their desired
and engaged strategies suggests that the Japanese may also be subject to greater
immediate conflict factors. But what might those factors be?
Avoidance of Overt Conflicts

It is possible that the apparently unreasonable decisions of the Japanese


students were made as a result of pressures to keep relational harmony. The
shift from the privately desired strategies to the publicly engaged ones was
characterized by a switch from activity to passivity. We conjectured here that
the Japanese students may have perceived active strategies as being quite risky
in some regards, even if they appeared constructive or mitigating, and saw
passive strategies as being expedient for evading some potential danger, although they did not contribute to personal goal attainment.
Individualists may not understand the perception of the Japanese that even
constructive strategies can threaten interpersonal relationships. However, most
Japanese would agree with it, since any active strategies make the conflict overt
or public. Markus and Kitayama (1991) assumed that the Japanese, having
interdependent selves, may suppress private desires or emotions in public.
Among the Japanese, an objection to interference by another person-that is,
an overt recognition of a conflict-may be seen as a strong self-assertion or
manifestation of the private self and, therefore, a disturbance of social harmony. The fact that the majority of Japanese students in the present study made

CULTURAL STYLES OF CONFLICT MANAGEMENT

1363

the conflicts covert appears to support such an interpretation. For the Japanese,
the decision of whether to make a conflict overt may be more critical than that
between strategies. They would prefer keeping their conflicts covert over
risking a disturbance of social harmony.
Keeping conflicts covert requires strong self-control because the actor must
maintain a polite public appearance, while privately tolerating frustration. In
agreement with Triandis (1989b), the present findings on the Japanese students reactions to conflicts, particularly their preference for covertness and the
large difference between their desired and engaged strategies, suggest the
differentiation of private and public selves.
As reasons for making conflicts covert, the Japanese students frequently
reported the maintenance of relationships and feelings of shared responsibility.
These also support Triandis, as well as Markus and Kitayamas, views of the
Japanese self. The first reason given reflects the Japanese fear of disturbing
social harmony or their perception of social pressure toward maintaining it.
The second seems to reflect their interdependent selves since, even if they were
victims, they felt that they had disturbed the social harmony and, therefore,
considered themselves partly responsible for the conflicts. Some Japanese
students regretted that they have had desires or goals that were incompatible
with those of others, or they negatively evaluated their perception of being
interfered with. Their regret or self-criticism is focused on the perceived
egocentricity of their desires. Lebra (1976), a cultural anthropologist, hypothesized that there is a morally relativistic belief shared by the Japanese that
neither absolute goodness nor absolute badness exists, but that everyone involved in a conflict is responsible for it. To support this theory, she referred to
the well-known fact that divorce is far less frequent among Japanese than
among Americans. Both points relate to the Japanese style of attribution of
responsibility, which may determine their reactions to conflicts.
Maintenance of Relationships and Effectiveness of Strategies

With regard to conflict management, the maintenance of relationships is not


unequivocal but has several different meanings. One is a strategic interpretation based on social exchange or social resource theories. Foa and Foa (1974)
and Buss (1986) regarded relationships as continuous exchanges of various
kinds of rewards or resources between participants. According to this theory,
people make efforts to maintain relationships that provide valued rewards.
They may even tolerate immediate annoyance, if such tolerance is expected
eventually to benefit them. However, the social exchanges of relationships
must be important for the Americans as well as for the Japanese. Therefore,
such transactions may not be the sole reason for the Japanese preference for

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OHBUCHI AND TAKAHASHI

the covertness of conflicts. If the subjects avoidance was strategic in this


sense, they should have evaluated avoidance more positively in terms of
effectiveness.
A second and more plausible interpretation is that the Japanese are apt to
overreact emotionally to other peoples uneasiness, as stressed by cultural
psychologists such as Barnlund (1975), Triandis (1 989b), and Markus and
Kitayama (1991). Their theories contend that the Japanese have a neurotic
belief that, no matter how reasonable an assertion or polite a request, if it
implies discontentment or criticism, it would injure the others pride or social
face and, thus, threaten the actors relationships. Consequently, for the Japanese-particularly young Japanese who have long been trained to conform to
others both at home and at school-it may be very difficult to overcome such
a fear and engage in active resolution strategies. However, as they mature and
gain experience with conflicts, their strategies may become more active. This
reasoning is based on the finding that the tendency toward avoidance was less
prevalent among the older Japanese students.
Limitation of Episodes Analyses

The present findings were obtained from content analyses of conflict episodes reported by the subjects. Retrospective self-reports of this type may be
affected by some cognitive biases such as self-serving or over-attribution.
Therefore, we cannot deny the possibility that some degree of the cultural
differences found in the present study might have been artificially produced by
overstatement on the part of the subjects in the processes of restoring or
recalling the details oftheir conflicts. Although the present findings were quite
consistent with both theoretical assumptions and findings provided by other
cross-cultural studies, further research using different methods is necessary to
establish them.
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