Smiling doesn’t always mean I am happy!

Emotion is a very significant component in intercultural conflict. Negative emotional development such as anger, frustration, stress, anxiety and fear, play an important role in conflict escalation. Culture differences affect non-verbal behaviors and the way people express their feelings. They determine how we communicate to others what we are feeling or what we want others to think we are feeling. In collective cultures, where people have a low expression of emotion, they tend to hide and suppress their feelings. Especially in Asian countries, they have a strong system of emotional display rules than people from other countries. People value social relationship very high that they hide their negative emotional expression. In contrast to collectivism cultures, people in individualistic societies feel more comfortable expressing all type of emotions to others. For example, Thai people do not express their negative feelings to other people the way Americans do, we are likely to keep the negatives feeling to ourselves. In American society, people concern with their own needs and desires, whereas, in Thai culture, we are raised to care about what others want.

People often misinterpret other’s non-verbal behaviors such as smiling, laughing, and crying, in which it could lead to a misunderstanding. For instance, in Asian culture, particularly in Thai culture, sometimes people smile to hide their distress, anger or embarrassment. This is particular true when communicating with a high status person. Moreover, when Thais feel discomfort or shy, we often smile and laugh, which may be interpreted by those in American society as enjoyment or in some social context it can be interpreted as a disrespectful behavior. These misinterpretations with the lack of understanding of cultural differences could lead to conflict in broader issues such as, religious, gender and even national problems.


Picture credit:  Yang Liu

Different in emotional expression could also determine the way people in different cultures deal with conflicts and disagreements differently. Moreover, it shows the difference in emotional communication styles. Mitchell Hammer proposed four intercultural conflict styles: Discussion, Engagement, Accommodation and Dynamic.


Picture credit 

The Discussion style emphasizes a verbally direct path when dealing with disagreement. People tend to say what they mean and mean what they say. However, even though they tend to discuss about the disagreement directly to others, they aware of their emotions and have a controlled manner when expressing their emotions. Example of this styles are North America: United States, Canada; Europe: Sweden, Norway, Germany; Asia Pacific: Australia and New Zealand.

The second style is Engagement style. This style emphasizes on a confrontational approach and verbally direct when dealing with conflict. They also use a strong verbal and non-verbal communication. Furthermore, this style is more emotionally expressive when dealing with disagreements. Examples of culture that use Engagement style are

Next is Accommodation style which emphasizes ambiguity in language use to make sure that conflict is not get out of control. This style has an indirect approach and emotionally restrained when dealing with conflicts. People who have this conflict style highly value a relationship with others and want to maintain social harmony. Asian cultures, such as Japan, China, and Thailand are an example of Accommodation style.

The last one is Dynamic style. This style use indirect strategies when dealing with disagreements; they often communicate through a third parties to resolve conflict. People who use this style also have an emotionally intense expression; they feel comfortable with strong emotion expression. This style is found in Arab Middle East countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Understanding and being aware of conflict styles used by people from different cultures can change people’s perception and perspective on others. Understanding cultural differences is a first step in resolving conflict rationally and effectively.

Related content:

Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory

Tammysong Blog


4 thoughts on “Smiling doesn’t always mean I am happy!

  1. This is extremely useful information to know, not just in an informal setting amongst friends but particularly for business and formal situations. It is curcial to know the role non-verbal behavior plays in communication. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Asian people , especially Thai people don’t express their negative feelings but they choose to smile to hide their emotions . Totally agree with you

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