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Fortune Cookies And Conflict Management: A Dilemma

Fortune cookies have become a basic dessert course of Chinese cuisine in Northern American countries. It is amazing that inside these little cookies are such profound messages inspiring us about the principles of conflict management. These messages come from thousands of proverbs about anger and emotional control in the long history of Chinese culture: “If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow.” Besides, today’s fortune cookies come with lucky numbers, lottery numbers, and lucky colors as well. It is always fun to enjoy a fortune cookie, but what is the meaning behind it? Besides the message inside, the history of the fortune cookie gives us insight into how cultural change and adaptation in business affect conflict management.

What message can we really read from a fortune cookie? Chinese are very creative, flexible and adaptive in business. The Chinese cuisine and dinning culture becomes so “adaptive” outside China. The fortune cookie is an example of this mixing of Chinese cuisine and Western culture because there are no fortune cookies in restaurants in China, Hong Kong or Macao. They only appear in the Chinese restaurants in some Northern American countries. I, as a Chinese, see this mixing culture as a success in business, but also as a loss of the original culture.

A fortune cookie, representing a mixing of dining cultures, is like a metaphor for how people are losing original culture. We can see this phenomenon in the Chinese dining culture in Western countries such as US and Canada. Chinese use bowls, chopsticks and spoons to eat, but customers in Chinese restaurants here are served with plates and chopsticks or forks. Sweet and sour sauce is not the only favorite in Chinese cuisine. Incorrect Chinese words on the menu and hardly understandable Chinese translations are more than enough to represent the loss of original culture, the failure of cherishing a culture.

As these changes in Chinese dining culture demonstrate, it is truly difficult to maintain an original culture in foreign countries. These changes also demonstrate that the mixed culture is sometimes mistaken for original culture or has been transformed to become the original one. This same mistake can take place in conflict environments: mixed cultural responses to conflict are confused for original cultural responses to conflict.

If a fortune cookie is an example of mixing dining culture, then language is an example of mixing communication culture. The words we use are a major factor in causing an argument or making a compliment. Respect is always the norm in Chinese culture, but still depends on people’s perspective of the meaning of a word or a sentence structure. The Chinese and Western communication cultures are quite different. The perspectives and abilities of using words or structuring sentences could be very different for a Chinese to express in foreign language. This also happens even when they speak their own Chinese language because they may structure a sentence by mixing different languages, grammars and cultures due to their own diverse backgrounds. Here is the problem; I was taught in many languages – Chinese, English and Portuguese in school in Macau. Chinese, as my mother language, sometimes is not even an official teaching language in schools. Our language is also adapted to those worldwide standard technical or medical terms such as WTO, ISDN, SARS, etc. According to an article in The Epoch Time, some scholars claim that the Chinese language may be facing a crisis in near future. I can image how this will happen and it actually is happening in the US. Language is what we use to communication. If language is used differently, this is why misunderstanding happens, assumptions are made, and conflict occurs.

When it comes to conflict resolution, which way should a mixing culture adapt? The assumption of cultural values could make a mediation process very difficult even when the mediator and the party are both from the same culture. No matter if I identify a party by language or by appearance as Chinese, same as me, I can hardly tell whether he or she has adapted to Western culture, Non-Western culture, or somewhere between the two. Even the party may not realize what culture or cultures he or she has adapted to. Because the loss of original culture – resulting in inappropriate words, misunderstandings, and assumptions of cultural perspectives – would easily cause conflict, the mediator has a role to help filling the blanks. Before or during mediation, mediator can help break through the assumption of which one culture(s) is being used and help the parties and the mediator him/herself to understand what is really inside their hearts – an individualistic direct culture, a harmonic indirect culture, or a mixing culture. Mediators can also invite a co-mediator with the same culture of the parties to assist them express their ideas in a mediation process by clarifying their perspective of some jargons or words, or helping them to restructure their sentence.

We can never tell by appearance, and we always are fooled easily by appearance. Apparently, we believe the fortune cookie is a Chinese tradition; traditionally it is not. But this fortune cookie embraces the Chinese’s ingenuity of doing business and Westerners’ openness of welcoming interesting things. At least it means a successful integration of two cultures. I feel bad about losing original culture, but I can always help bridging the two different cultures together. Now, fortune cookies create a Chinese-Western culture. We are all just like fortune cookies; we will never know what is inside until we open it. Mediators can succeed in resolving conflict by opening and seeing what is inside both parties’ hearts.


Kin I (Deane) Lam

Deane Lam is a corporate learning and development professional based in Macau S.A.R. (China) with more than fifteen years of experience in organizational development, performance management and consulting, and has been working with organizations to help them manage people, lead the team and improve performance. Deane is the Founder of Lamsquare Consultant,… MORE >

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