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Handling Cultural Clashes

By Sasha Ganeles, Planner

A wise man once said he does not discuss three things with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.

Americans are no more polarized today than they were 60 years ago. Be it religion, politics, sports teams, or the oxford comma, people have always found contention among one another. But in our particular day in America, the climate is particularly heavy with cultural conflict. With arguments erupting constantly on social media and hot button issues being echoed even in TV commercials, it feels like there’s no shortage of opportunities to clash over differing viewpoints. We think people should be equipped with the proper knowledge and tools to handle cultural conflicts as they emerge; we have a lot to learn from psychologists, diplomats, negotiators, human relations officers, and other professional fields.

Medieval times

Jousting. Dubious results.

Mind games

Psychology offers an insightful approach to resolving issues between people by understanding how they think. Disagreements about culture and ideology ultimately come down to people, so why not utilize a people expert to best understand how to facilitate progressive and productive conversation?

Here are some key insights about the human psyche that are universally true and can inhibit conflict resolution.

  1. When a decision is surrounded by intense pressure and is not supported by institutional systems, it’s very difficult to think more creatively and openly.

  2. When someone’s image of himself is part of the consensus, it’s difficult to be open to and perceive change. It’s easy to become selective with information to confirm the majority opinion.

  3. People tend to equate the adversary’s loss with their own gain rather than seeking ways for both parties to benefit.

  4. Conflict can become a source of purpose, power or even profit for some, thus creating a reason for its continuation.

  5. With an understanding of these human traits, psychology offers approaches to having a productive conversation.

  6. Take a step back and consider others’ perspectives. We tend to view our values as commonplace, and so assume that anyone who doesn’t share these views is immoral.

  7. Employ a gentle and measured approach. When people feel attacked for holding a position, they can become more resolute in holding it.

Trying to change someone’s mind should not be the goal -- it’s doomed to be a fruitless and frustrating endeavor. Neurological research shows that it’s really difficult to change our own minds, let alone someone else’s.

Social code

Cultural clashes frequently manifest in online debates -- be it through impassioned novels disguised as Facebook posts, strings of Tweets, or vicious comments lurking beneath articles. Safe behind computer screens -- and sometimes protected by anonymity of the internet -- the vast majority of people discussing politics on social media are likely to say things they would never repeat in person.

Are these ‘debates’ productive, or do they create more of a divide? Social channels are known for being echo-chambers, and people aren’t willing to even be exposed to others’ opinions. Pew estimates that about a third of social media users have changed their settings to minimize someone in their feed due to politics, and 27% have blocked or unfriended someone for that reason. If you must engage on social, here are some key things to keep in mind according to Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at the Pew Research Center and, a voice of reason in the frey of social discourse.

  1. People must feel heard before they can listen to you. Be receptive to others.

  2. Rainie found that “thoughtful contrarians” (those who “gently” introduce contrarian information without political aggression) are the most highly valued in social networks. He suggested helpful sentence constructions such as “I thought you would be interested in this, even if you may not agree”.

  3. Figure out what you agree upon. It’s easy to forget people arrive to social media armed with completely different sets of facts, especially with misleading websites undermining a common sense of the truth.

  4. Understand where the disagreement lies -- often, many arguments stem from misunderstandings about things people actually agree on, rather than their differences.

  5. Start a conversation. Rather than framing your post to show people why they are wrong, create an open space for a debate.

  6. Keep it light. Rainie suggests that small measures can defuse conversations spiraling out of control: Even something as simple as an emoji or an expression of empathy can help, or asking people how exactly they meant to make a point.

  7. Avoid buzzword insults. By adapting the lingo of the mob, you're far more likely to make people [further affirm]( their own beliefs. But even worse than that, using a put-down not only pigeonholes an entire group, but yourself as well.

  8. Sometimes you just need to end the conversation. At a certain point, discussions are reduced to disrespect and a refusal to acknowledge others’ views, and no progress will be made.

At the water cooler

Companies work very hard to create a culture that is beneficial for employees and enables the company to thrive (but of course you would know this if you read our blog post about team building). As private enterprises, companies are entitled to remove people who don’t contribute to that culture and allow it to function at the highest level. This issue came into the spotlight when a now-former Google employee penned a manifesto about ‘diversity’ that essentially stated that women and non-white races are biologically unsuited to technical and leadership positions. When the piece found its way into the public’s newsfeeds, outrage ensued, and the writer was promptly fired.

Some rushed to his defense, arguing that Google itself was not inviting diversity by silencing his thinking. Did Google act out of turn and fly in the face of the First Amendment? Yonatan Zunger, a former Google employee, doesn't think so. He argues that because the manifesto directly damaged Google’s public image, it was clearly within the company’s jurisdiction to deal with it however they saw fit. He writes that had he been the writer’s manager, “It would have ended with you being escorted from the building by security...And the fact that you think this was “all in the name of open discussion,” and don’t realize any of these deeper consequences, makes this worse, not better.” So how could such a fiasco been prevented? For starters, there must be clear communication from the company from the get-go about what is acceptable within the culture. That way, the criteria for employee behavior is understood -- and should the employee violate those expectations, the grounds for firing are easily justified.

Brands hard-selling unity

In the blunder heard ‘round the world this past Spring, Pepsi released an ad that aimed to show how the “cool cola” could unite all social, racial, and religious groups. And cops. It did in a way, by offending virtually everyone and sparking a unified outcry. Although the brand attempted to show how groups could put aside their differences for the greater good, it instead proved that Pepsi did not understand the very causes and groups it was trying to connect with. Had they conducted real research with the protest organizations they were trying to represent, they could have understood them better. In response to the Pepsi fiasco, Heineken stepped forward with a similarly problematic ad, again capitalizing on serious issues for their own gain. And predictably, the public was not pleased. These ads undermined the complexity of the issues and clearly were just trying to sell something.

However, spreading a message about unity can be done. In 2015, the Ad Council used Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to spread a heartfelt message of love and acceptance. How did Love Has No Labels accomplish what Pepsi and Heinken could not? Perhaps it was because it was delivering a message without the bitter aftertaste of selling a product. Or maybe it was because it focused on one simple, non-partisan message that everyone can get behind: love. No overtly political content that could get people riled up, no hot button issues. It payed off too -- the spot was the first PSA to be awarded an Emmy.