‘Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon’…Why Asians Avoid Conflict

 A thousand days at home, peace. A moment abroad, trouble.—Chinese idiom

Cats have a certain demure, innocent look. They sit innocently on the couch and appear to be harmless. In fact, they want to be cuddled all the time.

Tigers, too, are cats. Yes, tigers belong to the cat family. The feline kind. If tender loving touch is denied, they can become ferocious. They scratch, scowl, and even bite.

Humans often behave like feline creatures. They seem demure, tender, and have an approachable demeanor. Like cats or tigers, we want to be cared for and others to be kind to us. We treat other people well when they treat us well. When we relate to others benevolently, their tendency is to reciprocate.

When our hearts are at war, we can’t see clearly. We give ourselves the best opportunity to make clear-minded decisions only to the extent that our hearts are at peace.—The Arbinger Institute

But like tigers, when threatened, we can become defensive, annoyed, acrimonious, and vicious. Often, we do not show our emotions openly and directly. Instead, we conceal them. Even when confronted, we deny, suppress, or repress these feelings. If ignored long enough, they can become detrimental.

Why Do Asians Avoid Conflict?

Many Asians acknowledge that they are predisposed to conflict aversion and capitulate to individuals with higher authority or greater power. Children acquiesce reluctantly to parents when they are younger but they may turn into irrepressible monsters when they are in their teens.

Maids may conform flaccidly to bosses who mistreat them. But they retaliate indirectly on their bosses’ children, property or, in one case, deliberately putting broken pieces of glass into their food!

Reticent staff may be seen to succumb to their employers’ whims and fancies. But some will injure them insidiously by spreading rumors through the office grapevine.

1. ‘Conflict as Negative’ Perception – Perception as Reality

Our pictures of conflict are usually negative: fire, fight, failure, or filth. These perceptions often shape our reality and affect the manner in which we manage conflict: We either avoid or give in.

Nora, a Malaysian accountant, was conflict averse. She avoided conflict by not attending meetings and falling sick whenever her boss interrogated her about her below- par performance. Sometimes, her boss even had to communicate to her through intermediaries because she went missing!

Nanda, a young engineer in an Indian construction firm, shared how his boss always thought she was right. Any suggestion made by her subordinates was usually brushed aside. He confided, “I cannot disagree with my boss. I don’t want to get into a contest with her. I’d rather accede to her request even if I disagree with her.”

I was brought up in a family where my father could do no wrong. He was always right, even when he was wrong. My father had a foul temper, which struck fear in the hearts of my mother and all us seven children. Whenever my father lost his cool, my mother would be the first to pacify him. When we were kids, we would run helter-skelter and hide.

Woe betide anyone who ventured to challenge him. Once, my oldest brother, Robert, retorted and got a severe caning. This situation continued until we became adults. I witnessed many fistfights, bottle throwing, and knife-fighting confrontations between my father and brothers. It was really petrifying.

Being the youngest, I simply stood aside and watched the countless fights my siblings had with my father. Many times, my mother’s attempts at mediation failed. For me, I suppressed my anger. This would sneak up on me later in my life.

Many Asians have a habit of avoiding or relenting in conflict because they have a negative perception of conflict. This leads to a ‘preserve harmony at all costs’ mentality. Disagreements are kept to a minimum. Exchanges are cordial at meetings. ‘Face’ concerns become primary. New ideas are seldom generated.

Ridwan, a restaurant manager in Indonesia, could never understand why his waiters would often get the customers’ orders wrong. The staff were displeased with their salaries but would not talk this sensitive issue over with their manager. It irritated Ridwan immensely. He could never fathom why there were gaps in the orders!

Bosses often think that they have their staff’s cooperation, only to discover that their staff had merely paid lip service to even the most well-laid plans. To the bosses’ chagrin, employees refuse to discuss issues because they perceive conflicts as negative.

2. Preserving the Ego – The ‘Lose Face’ Cultural Norm

‘Face’ concerns exist in all cultures.2 Perhaps, it is more apparent in Asian cultures than Western.

‘Face’ is akin to the psyche within an individual that denotes a person’s honor, ego, and status. It can be gained or lost, given or taken away in social relationships.

The Malays and Indonesians call it muka, the Chinese, lien, and the Thais, na. They all refer to similar concepts of ‘face’ concerns: the need to save and give ‘face’ and not to lose ‘face’. Fred Schneiter claims that giving ‘face’ is something that happens “all day, every day, transcending the foreigner’s usual cursory concept of what it is”. In conflict situations, to give ‘face’ may be expressed in the following ways:

  • Not confronting the conflict openly or directly so as to preserve our honor
  • Not to prove that we are right and others are wrong
  • Providing a gracious exit: Give others a way out when they are wrong
  • Not to contend or show dissent in disagreement.

Wong, a production manager, was most offended when his young American boss of three months, James, challenged him openly in front of all his staff. In his usual brash way, James accused him, “You call yourself the production manager and you can’t even meet the deadline!”During the meeting, Wong kept quiet and gave a most infuriating answer to James by lamenting, “I don’t know,” to the barrage of questions that James asked. The next day, Wong tendered his resignation with his entire team because he had lost ‘face’.

3. The Power Distance Gap – The Wai and ‘Yes’ Hierarchy Factor

In Thailand, there are certain social etiquettes in wai, a Thai hand gesture for greeting. A younger person must wai to an older person first. A student must wai to the teacher. An employee must smile, wai to his boss, and bow lower than his boss, out of deference.

It is interesting that even though they may disagree with or have disrespect for a person, they still smile, wai, and bow.

I once sat in a department meeting between the Head of Pharmacy Department and his team of pharmacists. Before the meeting, Narin would wai, bow, and smile at his boss. During the exchange, he would respond, “krap” (“yes” or “I hear you”) many times to his boss. I thought the meeting went very well as there seemed to be much agreement with boss.

But after the meeting, Narin told his peer over lunch, “The meeting was crap.” He differed entirely with his boss. When asked why he did not express his opinions during the meeting, he replied nonchalantly, “We must give him respect as the boss. I may not agree with him but I must respect him.”

“Wow!” I thought to myself. “I should be more discerning in interpreting all the wai, smiles and nods at meetings.”

4. Family Upbringing – Absentee Father and Dominating Mother Role Models

In most Asian cultures, fathers are the breadwinners. Fathers bring in the dough while mothers dominate the home. Children are to toe the line unquestioningly. They are to be seen but not heard. There is no tolerance for disagreement. It is considered highly disrespectful and dishonoring if they antagonize their parents. From young, they are taught to swallow their anger and tolerate the intolerable. Sometimes this perspective is brought into the office.

Suriya, a highly energetic 30-something Indonesian who worked in his father’s business, confided, “At work, I don’t argue with my dad. He has the final say. Even if I disagree with him, I just have to go along. This is how I have been brought up. If I am upset with his decision, I just bear with it and keep it inside me.

There is also the ‘absent father’ phenomenon. Dad is usually too preoccupied with work and leaves Mom to make all the decisions in family matters. I remember when I was younger, Dad would often take Mom’s side in domestic affairs. It did not matter whether she was right or wrong. At times, I used this power arrangement to my advantage. Whenever I wanted something contrary to Dad’s wishes, I referred to Mom. If Mom agreed, Dad would follow.

5. The Boss is Always Right – The ‘Boss as Father’ Factor

There is a certain patronage system in many Asian cultures. Bosses are often perceived as the benefactors while the employees see themselves as the beneficiaries. The latter then become beholden to the former.

Yang, a sales manager in China, felt indebted to his director, Wong, who treated him like a son. Wong had interviewed and recruited him. Yang became beholden to him from the first day of work. This gave rise to a patronage attitude at work, with the director being regarded as the ‘godfather’.

Sometimes, this kind of patronage permeates throughout an organization. Hence, the greater the power distance, the less powerful the employee is.

Yang’s director became a father figure to him. As such, absolute allegiance was demanded; no questions asked. During discussions, Yang sat silently and occasionally gave seemingly enthusiastic nods to Wong. It would be perceived as betrayal if Yang ever disagreed with Wong. This led to a toleration of inept performances because Wong, who expected complete loyalty in return, always protected Yang. 

6. ‘Indirect ’ is Better – The ‘Beating-Round-the-Bush’ Factor

In order to preserve and not make the other party lose ‘face’, bosses may adopt a more indirect form of communication when confronted with issues. It is counter-Asian culture to confront a problem candidly and explicitly.

Service standards had deteriorated over the past few months in are reputable Malaysian hospital. The head nurse, Miri, summoned the supervisor, Fatimah, for a meeting to discuss this issue. Instead of confronting the problems, however, pleasantries were exchanged. The situation was described and Fatimah cited the lack of manpower as the root cause. Miri pressed Fatimah further but soon sensed that she was reluctant and resistant. Miri simply said, “Next time, do better.” As predicted, the situation did not improve. Each month, this ‘beating-around-the bush’ continued ad nauseam.

7. Fear of Consequences – The ‘Heads Will Roll’ Stance

The fear of consequences has led many employees to fail in managing conflicts healthily and productively. Rahmat, a manager in a Malaysian multi-national IT company, was terrified of telling the boss that the technical support team had not performed up to the mark. They had failed to diagnose and solve a system flaw for their client.

Instead, he kept sending good reports until the client complained directly to his boss, Norani. She was so dis-mayed that she confronted Rahmat about the matter. When asked why this was kept from her for so long, he replied, “I didn’t want to offend you and my team members.” 

8. Lack of Competence – ‘Don’t Know Any Other Way’

The culture of fear is prevalent in many Asian workplaces and families. This promotes hiding and lying, which eventually escalate the conflict. Another reason why people adopt the ‘smiling tiger’ approach in conflicts is the lack of competence in conflict management.

Chang, a Taiwanese human resource manager, found it tough to communicate bad news to his staff during performance appraisals. One staff in particular had not kept the payroll record well. It was incomplete and imprecise. Chang constantly avoided raising the issue. He confessed, “I am at a loss at performance appraisal. I am inept at communicating bad news.”

The inability to communicate bad news is a real problem to many Asians. Both managers and staff are distressed by it. Most organizations do not provide training in this area, which complicates the problem.

9. Avoidance Breeds Avoidance – The Vicious Cycle

Avoidance breeds avoidance, which then becomes a perpetual habit of conflict aversion.

Tan was a chronic conflict avoider. He knew of no other way. After he antagonized his subordinate, Jane, about her poor performance, she blew up and disputed his perception. He did not know how to respond. Tan was so taken aback by her violent reaction that he recoiled and clammed up. From then on, he shunned conflicts and would not confront his staff even if they had underperformed. His perspective was, “Better keep the peace than blow up the place!”

This avoidance syndrome drives issues underground, and solutions to conflict are often inadequate, or worse, wrongly applied.

10. Taking it Personally – ‘My Work is My Life’

We are inclined to avoid conflict also because most of us have a habit of taking criticism too personally. It has often been said, “Don’t take things personally,” when our work is being criticized. Honestly, it is tough not to take criticisms personally. The truth is, work is so much part of our lives, and our identity is so wrapped up in our work.

Yoko, a newly hired, very bright Japanese research assistant in a pharmaceutical company, made a terrible mistake in her report. Her Caucasian manager was so distraught that he took her to task. “Your research report is so sloppy!” he said. She submitted her resignation the next day. The manager lamented that Asians could not take criticism well, unlike his American colleagues who were more adept at handling criticism. He could not understand why Yoko could not separate her work from her person. Yoko’s way of dealing with conflict was to resign. Besides losing ‘face’, she also felt demeaned.

For many of us, it is very difficult to separate work from our self identity because we spend much of our waking hours at work. Our self-worth is so wrapped up in our work that when people criticize what we do, we feel that our self-image has been impinged. Take a look at this Venn diagram, which illustrates how our self-identity can be merged with our work. Appreciating this perspective, one can understand why Yoko reacted the way she did. Yoko’s reaction is common among Asian children as well.

Thiru, a very bright pre-university (Grade 11) student from a prestigious school in India, committed suicide when she discovered that she had obtained a ‘B’ in her Physics exam. She had consistently scored ‘A’s in all her subjects. A ‘B’ marred herself-identity. Unable to face her parents, teachers, friends, and herself, she took her own life.

Allow me to make a caveat about using avoidance and giving in as appropriate conflict management styles in some situations.

Avoidance may at times and in certain situations be right and appropriate. For example, during heated exchanges and intense conflict situations, it is better to withdraw from the clash for the moment and return to the conflict when we have cooled down. To continue with the confrontation would certainly heighten the conflict.

In some situations, giving in may be right as well. For example, when our analysis of the situation is flawed and we have made a mistake, continuing the fight to preserve our honor is suicidal. It is healthier to apologize and admit the mistake.

Conflict-aversion behavior may look good in the short-term and on the surface but in the long run, it can be destructive. Avoidance and giving in can lead to:

  • Frustration of bosses because real issues are never confronted
  • Promotion of incompetence in the organization
  • Demoralization of high performers as mediocrity is tacitly encouraged
  • Diffusion of creative energy as it promotes the ‘it can never been done’ thought pattern
  • Infection of the whole organization with negativity, cliques and cynicism
  • Deterioration of organization as staff get into ‘turf-ism’ and ‘selfism’.

In outlining these factors, I hope to have provided a better insight into why so many of have adopted the ‘smiling tiger, hidden dragon’ approach. I believe there is a better way of managing conflicts. Having worked with many organizations and families in Asia, I have seen role models of parents and bosses who have managed conflict healthily and appropriately. This will be explored in the final segment of the book.

This is an adapted excerpt from John’s book, “Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon” – a timely and comprehensive book that gives a fresh approach to conflict management from an Asian perspective.