Conflict Management

If America is the Melding Pot of the world, then Silicon Valley has to be the hottest part of the Pot. People come here from all over the world to share their ideas or seek their fortunes in this hotbed of technology. Others come here to escape oppression in their home countries or just to thrive in an economy that is booming most of the time. Whatever their reasons, their blend of cultures is something to behold. Standing in line at the supermarket, one can hear a half dozen languages blending together, or smell the kitchen aromas of Mexican, Viet Namese, Chinese, and Indian restaurants, all in the two minutes it takes to walk from one end of a strip mall to the other.

In the late 1970s through most of the 1980s, I had occasion to work for two large companies from opposite ends of the world – one from Germany and another from Connecticut, and I recall one of my colleagues at the time commenting that there was a bigger cultural difference between the East Coast and West Coast of the USA than between either coast and his native Germany. At one point, I had people from Mexico, India, Pakistan, Viet Nam, Taiwan, and Malaysia, all mixed with a crowd of regular old round-eyed western-European-American mongrels, on my staff at the same time[i]The mix presented some pretty challenging management “opportunities”, I might add.. Outside of the workplace, close friends included one couple from Africa and another from Russia, yet surprisingly, the most striking differences were between a Cupertino family [ii]3rd or 4th generation Italian-American family from New York and a Sunnyvale couple [iii]2nd generation Japanese-American.

During occasional Italian dinners at the home of Paul and Silvia from New York, I witnessed on more than one occasion, something that was totally foreign to me.  A disagreement of some sort would arise between the two of them, often including one or more of their children, which would erupt into a shouting match with name-calling and the slamming of doors. I was shocked and amazed to see adults behave that way because nothing like that would have been allowed or even contemplated in my family, at least not after the age of 3 years or so. Ironically, a few minutes after the shouting stopped, everyone seemed back to normal, as if nothing had happened. I might have had a hint from watching “All In The Family” , but I had never witnessed anything quite like it in real life.

At around the same time, Isao had become quite a good friend. I don’t think I ever heard his wife’s first name spoken – she was known to me only as Kania San or more appropriately as Kania Sama, which is how Isao addressed her. I never witnessed an uncomfortable moment between them, although I have no doubt they had plenty – they just had very different ways of dealing with disagreements. I surmised from his comments that, when a conflict arose, each one would slowly make subtle adjustments in their positions until they came together and the issue was resolved. Isao and I never discussed the conduct of the New Yorkers, but there were times that we witnessed it together and I could see that he was even more shocked and embarrassed than I was. If Kania Sama were to experience such an ordeal, I have no doubt that it would have brought her to tears.

Those different codes of conduct were obviously considered normal within each family, but the New Yorkers would likely say that the Kanias were trying to avoid conflict, and the Kanias might view the New Yorkers as savage Gaijin.[iv]The word “seiyohjin” is probably more correct but Gaijin is more commonly heard to describe an unwelcome foreigner.  I am sure both traditions go back generations and are appropriate for each, so my intention is not to criticize or endorse either, but to emphasize that those extremes can never be reconciled within a single relationship – but they can be “managed” albeit with considerable effort on both sides.

Name-calling and door-slamming are not things I am accustomed to and the only time I might raise my voice would be if an airplane is flying overhead. In my nuclear family, we don’t even interrupt or attempt to talk over one another. We would consider that to be rude and disrespectful, while for others it is commonplace and expected. Some might describe my experience as being one of “avoiding conflict”, but I would describe it more as “managing conflict”. I say “managing” rather than “avoiding” or “resolving” because there are times when resolution is not advised or even possible. Consider James Carville and Mary Matalin for example. They are seemingly happily married but could not possibly be farther apart on the political scale. Or how about similar unions between Muslim and Hindu or an Irish maiden and a black African man, who speaks 6db above her?

It seems to me that recognizing the disparities and treading delicately works better than trying to blend the traditions into something that probably will not work anyway. It strikes me that to temporarily “avoid” a confrontation until such time as the disagreement can be addressed rationally, as adults, works better – albeit with lots of understanding, patience, and a daily regimen of 50mg of Valium for both sides.

As for my personal experience, for someone close to me to falsely accuse me of some ill deed or call me an ugly name, as the New Yorkers did routinely, would leave a permanent scar on my heart. The effect of such scars accumulating over time would cause me to instinctively push the attacker away. Compounding and worsening such a scenario would be for the aggressor to seemingly “forget about” the incident, again as the New Yorkers did, without an apology or even recognition that a breach had occurred. That would send a strong message that a repeat of such conduct should be expected at any moment when least expected. The long-term effect would be a wall of self-protection, which leads me to put forth this New Year’s Resolution.

By: Jim
Written: December 2022
Published: December 2022
Reader feedback always appreciated[v]. . thoughtful commentary perhaps more so than shallow thoughts
i The mix presented some pretty challenging management “opportunities”, I might add.
ii 3rd or 4th generation Italian-American family from New York
iii 2nd generation Japanese-American
iv The word “seiyohjin” is probably more correct but Gaijin is more commonly heard to describe an unwelcome foreigner.
v . . thoughtful commentary perhaps more so than shallow thoughts