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What are the Biggest Causes of Intercultural Conflict?

What are the Biggest Causes of Intercultural Conflict?

 Working across cultures is rapidly becoming the norm for most people across the world.

As a result, intercultural conflict is also becoming more common. 

In this article, we'll look at 3 of the most common causes of intercultural conflict and give you some real-life examples of intercultural conflict in the workplace. 


Firstly, why are intercultural business relationships becoming the norm?

Well, 4 key reasons.

1. Businesses are increasingly growing their presence across international borders

Meaning, that it’s far more common for employees to be part of intercultural teams and virtual networks. Research shows that well functioning multicultural teams are more productive, innovative and creative. 

2. International business expansion and market acquisition is rapid

Multinational acquisitions are becoming more common, which is accelerating international networking and intercultural relationships. During a  corporate acquisition, for example, staff in America may acquire a Japanese CEO and begin reporting to a Japanese management team.

3. International businesses are more likely to give expatriate opportunities to staff

Opportunities to work abroad are given for a number of reasons, but typically it's in a bid to a) retain and incentivise talent and b) fill technical and specialist resource gaps in international offices.  Once again, staff may acquire new foreign colleagues or managers, forcing them to learn how to communicate across intercultural lines.

4. Migration and multicultural family units are part of the social fabric

Years ago, it may have been unusual for someone to marry outside their own culture but this is now something that is accepted as entirely normal, and acceptable. It's also fair to say that parents who can build on the best childcare approaches from their respective cultures will most certainly be rearing their children with the best of both worlds.

3 Most Likely Causes of Intercultural Conflict

Intercultural relationships can be incredibly rewarding and productive when they work well. 

However, when they don't, things can spiral into conflict fairly quickly. 

For example, couples might start arguing that their way of childrearing is the right way, corporate teams may stop communicating with their colleagues from other cultures; viewing them as untrustworthy or obstructive, or, managers of multicultural teams may see an increase in staff exits due to their inability to adapt their communication style cross-culturally.

Cause Number 1 - Ethnocentrism

The most common driver of intercultural conflict derives from something known as ‘ethnocentrism’.

Ethnocentrism essentially stems from an individual’s belief that their culture and way of doing things is the right way. There are lots of different levels of ethnocentrism, but an extreme ethnocentric will view the world quite simply as their experience of it.

They are blind to any other reality.

Ethnocentric business man


Alternatives to their own way of seeing the world and interacting in it are quite unimaginable.

An individual with this extreme view will have no concept of being a product of culture themselves - everyone else has a culture but they don’t. The way they do things is right and the way everyone else does this is wrong!

It’s quite clear how ethnocentrism can cause intercultural conflict.

A manager, who thinks that their way is the right way, will cause upset with his / her reporting staff, fail to listen to their needs, undermine their approaches and, quite likely, demotivate them. In a personal relationship, someone who feels their culture is superior and tries to enforce it will either destroy the relationship or, create a situation in which their partner is forced to ignore their own culture and adapt to another – something that will undoubtedly cause resentment and upset.

A Case Study in Ethnocentrism

Pakistan flag

 Let's take, for example, a British manager, within the Oil and Gas industry, who moved to Pakistan to oversee the activities of a team of geologists.

On arrival, the manager was surprised to find he had his own office. In the UK, he sat amongst his staff in an open plan working area.  Despite advice to the contrary, he arranged for his desk to be moved to the open plan area.  Once the move had been implemented, he found that the staff were very upset with him.


Why? Because British culture tends to see equality between staff as a good thing.  However, Pakistan is a fairly hierarchical culture and staff often perceive their manager as being in a management position due to their superior skills and understanding.

By effectively climbing 'down' the hierarchy, the staff lost respect for the manager and questioned his management credentials. Although this may not sound a big deal, the manager was eventually repatriated to the UK as it was impossible for him to win back the respect of his staff. 

This resulted in the loss of nearly £100k in assignment investment and a good deal of upset for the manager. 

Cause Number 2 - Differences in Cultural Values

Every culture has its own different set of values, and beliefs as to what is right or wrong.

These values drive our behaviours. Take for example someone who places a great deal of value on time.

They may even see time as money and resent people who waste their time. If you put this person with someone who doesn’t place value on time, then this can provide fertile ground for intercultural conflict.


Value of Time


In a different scenario, intercultural conflict is very possible if someone who values continuity is required to work closely with someone who values change.

Change can be perceived as threatening the status quo and harmony by those who value these areas. They may, therefore, not embrace it as quickly and may even be seen by others to be obstructing it.

A Case Study in Cultural Differences over Time

united arab emirates cartoon flag


Let's take, for example, a German project manager who went to the UAE in a bid to introduce the local office to a new business integrated system.

After a few days of interfacing with the local managers, he became extremely frustrated during a meeting and walked out. 


Why?  Because during meetings, he became offended that his Emirati colleagues were openly using their phones to text or take calls.

Equally, there were occasions where individuals (unrelated to the meeting), walked in and started a conversation with someone, which delayed proceedings.  Unfortunately for the German manager, had he had some form of intercultural training prior to his visit, he would have been aware that time and agendas are not valued in the same way in UAE culture. 

Instead, people and relationships are prioritised over time. The concept of 'time is money' does not really exist in the UAE.  As such, an Emirati meeting attendee, contacted by a relative or colleague who is in need of something, is very likely to deal with that need.  

Cause Number 3 - Cultural Communication

Different cultures have their own communication rules and their own ways of exchanging messages.

In fact, it’s fair to say that the way people communicate can vary greatly.


communication cultures differ


In Asia and the Middle East for example, people rely less on words than people in the West and instead make great use of body language, facial expressions, silence and what is not said as opposed to what is said.

There are a huge number of ways in which poor cross-cultural communication competence can cause intercultural conflict.

A Case Study in Cultural Differences in Communication

Japanese flag

 Let's take, a black and white example of someone from the USA who visits Japan to sell a product. During the meeting, the American ‘says it as it is’ which comes across as brash and unthinking to the Japanese counterparts.

Since the Japanese value harmony, they continue to smile and do not offend the American by telling her that they find her rude.



When the meeting concludes, she asks them whether they like the product and tries to steer them towards ordering a number of units. The Japanese tell her that they like the product very much and that they will be in touch. The American leaves the meeting happy and with the understanding that she will be receiving orders.

When she finds out, at a later date, that they will not be making orders, she is extremely upset. Her Japanese counterparts were smiling at her and they said they liked the product. She feels that the Japanese team were underhanded and that they deceived her into thinking that they would be moving forward with a purchase.

In this scenario, differences in the communication style between the cultures have had negative results for both the Americans and Japanese. The American failed to sell her product and the Japanese potentially missed out on purchasing a product that would have benefited them.

confused businessman


Which country in the world do you think has the most complex business culture?

Take a guess, then head on over to  The Business Culture Complexity Index ™ to see if you were close!

How do I avoid intercultural conflict?

We have seen that there are many factors that can cause intercultural conflict. 

Although ethnocentrism, cultural values and communication style are three key factors, they do not stand in isolation- there are many other factors. 

Whether intercultural relationships are personal or business, it’s essential that individuals recognise their own cultural frameworks and take the time to assess the values driving their behaviour.

To ensure productive and fruitful intercultural relationships, then it’s important to understand that one's own way is not necessarily the ‘right’ way. Just different. By taking the time to understand the cultures we interface with, we are able to identify where intercultural conflict is most likely to happen and make efforts to ensure this is managed positively.

Want to understand more about Culture and Conflict?

Well, this is a topic we cover in our e-Learning course. 

The course is a fantastic opportunity for business professionals to understand more about the impact of culture on business and to gain practical insights to help manage cultural differences in a positive way.

You can watch a free sample version of the course video below or you can also upgrade for full access for only $15 (only $1 for students). Organizational licenses are also available.

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