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.

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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.

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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

Cross-cultural misunderstanding

“When you travel, remember that a foreign country is not designed to make you comfortable. It is designed to make its own people comfortable.” – Clifton Fadiman

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Picture credit: BlueStream Marketing

What is a cross-cultural misunderstanding?

Cross-cultural misunderstanding happens when people from different cultures communicate or interact with one another. People from one culture act according to their norms and values, but the other does not understand the message the way it was conveyed and might interpret differently due to the cultural differences. Cultural misunderstanding also occurs when a word, gestures or social context have different meanings in different cultures.

In this case, I will focus on Thai culture in particular. I do believe that people travelling to other countries having a basic understanding of what is acceptable and what is frowned upon can be a big advantage for them. I am not saying or expecting that people have to act like the way the Thai do, it is just good to be mindful of how things in Thailand are.

Here are some tips to help you understand more about Thai culture and avoid cultural misunderstandings.

  • Thai greeting– The Wai- The wai is the common form of greeting and adheres to strict rules of protocol. It consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together. Generally, a younger person wais an elder, who returns it
  • Confrontation– Thai people generally speak softly and avoid confrontation at all costs. Please do not shout or raise your voice. Moreover, losing your temper, or showing strong negative emotions in public is considered a negative behaviorImage
  • Touching other’s head– In Thailand, your head is considered high; it is the most sacred part of the body, so touching someone’s head is considered rude, impolite and disrespectful.
  • Eating– it is inappropriate to lick you fingers while eating
  • No shoes inside– it is essential in Thai culture for people to remove their shoes before entering to someone’s house or a temple.
  • Pointing with your feet– the foot is considered the lowest part of the body.Image Pointing your feet to someone or something or raising your feet higher than someone’s head, using your feet to move anything or touch anyone or simply put your feet on the table is considered extremely rude in Thai culture.
  • Bend your body– As I mentioned above the head is the most scared part of the body. Therefore, Thai people will bend a little if they have to walk and everybody else sits, especially when the ones who sit are older than you. This is the way we show respect to the belief that having your head higher than someone else means that you are in a superior position to others.
  • Don’t step over people– If everyone else is sitting and you need to walk by; do not step over a person or any part of their body. Instead please walk around.
  • Keep your voice down when you are in closed public spaces– Thai people speak quietly when they are in closed public places such as in a train, bus, and elevator.

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Learn more about Thai culture:

Do’s and Don’t’s in Thai culture

Thai culture, customs and etiquette 

10 Thai customs to know before visiting Thailand