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'Using mediation in cultural conflicts'

Insults have a stronger effect on people from honour cultures because their honour is at stake. Escalations can be prevented if their sense of honour is left intact or if the perpetrator expresses sincere regret Leiden psychologist Said Shafa has found.

Tensions between Turkey and the EU

The tensions between a country like Turkey and the European Union stem largely from cultural differences, Shafa states. The angry reactions and sanctions experienced by columnist Ebru Umar and cabaret artist Jan Böhmermann when they criticised President Erdogan, are not isolated incidents.

Honour culture and culture of respect

Shafa says that people from an honour culture, found more predominantly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean regions, are more likely to be offended because an individual's feeling of self-worth is largely based on what other people think of them. People from cultures of respect, the norm in Western Europe and North America, associate their sense of self-worth far less with how other people judge them. They often do not understand why insults can arouse such strong reactions. 'This mutual lack of understanding really does show up the differences between the two types of cultures.'

Reinforcing one's self-worth

Shafa lived in Iran until he was nine. 'Coming from that background, I can really identify with both cultures.' He is just completing his postdoctoral research on interventions that can avoid insults leading to escalations. His research methods include staged situations, questionnaires and interviews with Moroccans, Turks and native Dutch people. He concluded, 'People from honour cultures can benefit from propping up their feelings of self-worth. One way they can do this is by realising that they receive a lot of respect from people who are important to them.’ His research shows that if people take time to think about this, they are less likely to be provoked by comments that they see as insulting. 

Regret and shame or an apology

In another study Shafa looked at when an apology helps. Among Dutch people from a culture of respect, a clear and simple apology is the most effective way to take the sting out of a conflict that has escalated.  For Turkish people, what is most important is that the perpetrator shows sincere regret and shame, according to Shafa.'But you can't force them to do that.'

Moral norm to treat one another with respect

Shafa obtained his PhD in 2014 based on his research on the psychological mechanisms that make people from an honour culture more susceptible to being upset by insults. The key factor is the norm of treating one another with respect, Shafa believes. Insults cross that boundary. Avoiding situations that can lead to loss of honour will make for greater tolerance and will avoid open confrontations. But if comments are regarded as too provocative, people from an honour culture will always react more strongly. That's expected in their society, Shafa explains. 'Otherwise it seems as if they don't believe their honour is important.'

Making more use of mediation

Shafa advocates greater use of mediation in cultural conflicts. It would also be good if acculturation courses provided clearer insights into the differences between cultures.  ‘In the Netherlands we are used to being open and direct with one another. We are quick to express criticism, and most people understand that comments made by a journalist often say more about him or her than about the person at whom the comments are directed. People in an honour culture see that differently.' 

Said Shafa will be joining the Melbourne Business School at the University of Melbourne from 1 September 2016. He will be continuing his research on the influence of cultural values on social interactions.

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