Reflections on Traveling China – Part 2: Indications of Different Cultural Backgrounds for Effectiveness of Diplomatic Negotiations

sanya-20170113-27Since I am sure that failure to understand and appreciate the other culture can lead to conflicts or misunderstandings when people with collectivist and individualistic cultural backgrounds socially interact, I can further assume that these cultural differences also have a significant impact on public diplomacy. Consequently, the next question I asked myself was what role these differences play in the context of diplomatic negotiations between Western and Asian countries. I think, just as on the personal level, it is important to develop mutual understanding for each other’s cultural differences to avoid conflict resulting from not being aware of these differences.

In “Negotiating Across Cultures: Communication Obstacles in International Diplomacy” (1991), Cohen explains that in collectivist cultures, communication tends to be rather context-sensitive and communication is characterized by politeness, relationship-building, tact and indirectness. On the other hand, individualistic cultures de-emphasize the communication context and personal relationships and communication is direct and explicit, with people having little patience for rhetoric or complex etiquette (Glaser, 2005). Besides this, there are certain topics that are treated as non-negotiable in some countries. For example, Glaser (2005) sums up main points of Cohen’s work by stating that North American and Northern European nations tend to treat matters of human rights as simply non-negotiable issues while many other nations do not perceive human rights as such basic and important preconditions. Surprising to me was that in fact, those human rights listed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights have been criticized as reflecting the “individualistic cultural bias of the West” (Glaser, 2005). Apparently, these individualistic rights are less applicable or appropriate to collectivist cultures. One example confirming this would be the one-child policy that had been implemented for many years in China. While I, as a Western individual, would criticize this policy as violating the human right to determine the size of one’s own family – not even speaking of the methods used to implement this policy in practice – polls in 2008 showed that the policy found support by roughly three quarters of the Chinese population (Pew Research Center, 2008).

Furthermore, I consider it relevant to be aware of how different cultures favor different means of negotiation and persuasion. While low context, individualistic cultures prefer a direct, explicit and even aggressive style of communication based on factual and reasoned arguments, high context or collectivistic cultures are generally uncomfortable with confrontation, aggression and adversarial styles of interaction (Glaser, 2005). They put higher emphasis on personal relationships and group harmony and therefore, persuasion focuses on cultivating a close, trusting relationship with the other communicator.

In addition to this, research found effects of individualistic and collectivistic cultural backgrounds on styles of decision making. More individualist ones tend to be more rational while those who are more collectivist tend to be more dependent (LeFebre & Franke, 2013, p. 141). This finding implies important learnings for people working in conflict resolution and mediation: Collectivists cannot be expected to make long-term decisions without the involvement of others in their group and individualists cannot be expected to toss aside thoroughly researched and logical choice to “go with a snap decision” (LeFebre & Franke, 2013, p. 141). Furthermore, LeFebre and Franke (2013) present another finding relevant for peacekeeping operations: collectivist societies show a tendency of wanting to solve group problems “within the most central and salient ingroup identities” (p. 141) and they are generally reluctant to go to outer circles to find solutions. Consequently, it can be assumed that collectivist societies are potentially “less prone to accepting external intervention” (p.141). Finally, the authors also found an importance of aligning cultural traits of peacekeepers with cultural traits of conflict societies. When peacekeepers have a feeling of familiarity with the society of the conflict setting they find themselves in, it affects their tendency toward peace (LeFebre & Franke, 2013, p. 141). LeFebre and Franke (2013) take this as an indication that it might be advisable to deploy peacekeepers from collectivist societies to conflict settings in collectivist societies because feelings of familiarity will aid their effectiveness (p. 141). Consequently, peacekeepers from individualist societies should be sent to conflict settings in individualist societies to support an effective outcome of peace talks. Summing up these findings within the area of international conflict and individual decision theory, I would like to emphasize that “local common sense” (LeFebre & Franke, 2013, p. 142) or cultural constraints can pose unconscious but relevant influence on cognitive processing. Therefore, decision-making does not necessarily have universal characteristics (LeFebre & Franke, 2013, p. 142). Within the context of peacekeeping it is crucial to understand how local common sense plays into decision-making processes displayed during conflict situations for effective conflict transformation efforts (LeFebre & Franke, 2013, p. 142).

As a next step of my thought process, I considered it interesting to apply these empirical findings to praxis. Concretely, I tried to apply my learnings to evaluating the Syria peace process and the negotiations that recently took place in Astana, Kazakhstan, brokered by Turkey, Russia and Iran. According to recent news reports, participating negotiators in the peace talks were the Syrian government, representatives of Russia, Iran and Turkey, a UN special envoy and the US ambassador to Kazakhstan. The opposition delegation was formed by representatives of armed groups (BBC News, 2017).

The above outlined research findings indicate that Syrian government representatives could be expected to be rather less prone to external intervention. Moreover, holding these peacetalks in Kazakhstan can be evaluated as a good approach as participating negotiators, all coming from rather collectivist societies (Hofstede, 2017), might have felt familiar with the conflict setting. The only participant who might have had strong feelings of unfamiliarity would have been US ambassador, coming from a highly individualist society and culture.

However, the plan is to continue with UN-sponsored peace negotiations, taking place in Geneva on February 20. Geneva, located in Switzerland, poses a rather individualistic societal surrounding while Syria can generally be described as a collectivist society (Hofstede, 2017). Regarding the above presented research findings, placing negotiations into this less familiar setting could potentially lead to a less effective ongoing of the peace talks. But still, location and cultural backgrounds are surely only few factors to take into consideration in peace negotiations.

References:

BBC News (01/24/2017). Syria conflict: War of words as peace talks open in Astana. Retrieved January 24, 2017, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38714441

Cohen, R. (1991). Negotiating Across Cultures: Communication Obstacles in International Diplomacy. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Glaser, T. (2005). Conflict Research Consortium Book Summary. Retrieved January 21, 2017, from http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/example/cohe7517.html

Hofstede, G. (2017). Cultural Dimensions. Retrieved January 24, 2017, from https://www.geert-hofstede.com/syria.html

LeFebre, R. & Franke, V. (2013). Culture Matters: Individualism vs. Collectivism in Conflict Decision-Making. Societies 2013, 3, p. 128-146. DOI:10.3390/soc3010128

Pew Research Center (2008). The Chinese Celebrate Their Roaring Economy, As They Struggle With Its Costs. Retrieved January 21, 2017, from http://www.pewglobal.org/2008/07/22/the-chinese-celebrate-their-roaring-economy-as-they-struggle-with-its-costs/

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