Do culture or situational constraints determine choice of direct or indirect styles in intercultural workplace conflicts?

Frances P. Brew*, David R. Cairns

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    70 Citations (Scopus)


    The individualist-collectivist dimension predicts that people in individualist nations such as Australia prefer direct, explicit communication strategies in managing conflict, whereas collectivist nations such as Singapore and Thailand prefer indirect, more contextual communication strategies. However, it is proposed that, in a multicultural workplace, cultural orientation alone may not predict choice of strategy, in that situational constraints may also contribute. This study examines three examples of situational constraints in work conflict interactions: (1) time deadlines (non-urgent or urgent), (2) cultural identity of the other person (same or different), and (3) work status of the other party (superior or subordinate). A sample of 102 employees (49 Australian expatriates, 53 East Asian host-nationals) working for five Western organisations in Singapore and Bangkok responded to a factorial survey. The results showed that East Asians only managed conflict more indirectly than Australians with superiors, particularly a Western superior. Urgency, cultural identity of the other and the work status of the other were all found to moderate conflict choices based on cultural predictions. It was argued that divergence between Western expatriates and East Asian host-nationals in conflict management behaviour was mainly due to the power-distance dimension, and that convergence was due to mindful adjustment by expatriates and by having similar approaches to time-orientation as a result of globalisation. Suggestions were made for including host-nationals in expatriate training programs.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)331-352
    Number of pages22
    JournalInternational Journal of Intercultural Relations
    Issue number5
    Publication statusPublished - Sept 2004


    • Collectivist, Situational department
    • Indirect communication
    • Individualist
    • Intercultural conflict
    • Power distance


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