Conflict in the workplace. The very idea of it may send anxious and negative thoughts through our minds, and yet it is an inevitable part of working within an individualist culture such as that of the United States. When one person with his own thoughts and beliefs is confronted with another person whose ideas differ, conflicts can arise. In our country, conflict is expected and, at times, welcomed when it leads to productive debate. However, not every culture shares our tolerance for conflict, and because of this, the steps toward resolution may not be clear to visiting Americans.
Guatemala is a high context and collectivist society that sees conflict as a threat to group harmony. That does not mean that conflicts do not arise, but they may not be as obviously expressed as they are in the United States. In America, a person may directly confront another person to discuss the problem and “talk it though.” In Guatemala, a person who is just as upset would more likely simply act more coolly toward the person without ever verbally acknowledging a problem.
This goes back to the Guatemalan concept of pena or saving face. Guatemalans do not feel comfortable when saying something critical or accusatory to another person and will work hard to avoid it. Talking it through or publicly displaying anger is unheard of and should be avoided as it openly identifies the conflict.
If you are working through an interpersonal conflict in Guatemala, you must keep these key cultural differences in mind to understand how to best handle it. If you cannot adapt to using the culture’s high context “cues” to indicate to someone that there is a problem (being less friendly, keeping conversation to a minimum), then The Canadian Centre for Intercultural Learning suggests politely confronting this person in private. This way you will not cause any embarrassment or loss of face that could ruin the relationship entirely. Another suggestion is to go through a neutral third party who has a better understanding of how to handle conflicts between cultures.
It is important to keep in mind that, while you may see the problem as a disagreement resolvable through words, Guatemalans and collectivist cultures in general see conflict as an aspect of the relationship as a whole, and choosing to acknowledge that one aspect indicates an unresolvable break in the relationship. Unless you are really seeking to terminate the entire relationship, it is best to remain sensitive to the cultural differences in perception of conflict and adjust your behavior accordingly.