Communication Currents

Do U.S. and Ecuadorian Students Differ in Their Conflict Styles?

April 1, 2016
Intercultural Communication

For many years, Intercultural Communication scholars have been studying conflict styles and facework while comparing the ways in which different cultures resolve disagreements.

James W. Neuliep has been teaching and studying this topic for nearly 30 years. According to Neuliep, conflict is a natural part of just about any relationship. But ways of managing conflict differ considerably across cultures. In the United States, for example, people tend to approach conflict and use a very direct style of communication. In other cultures, people tend to avoid conflict and use an indirect style. 

When Neuliep’s former student, Morgan Johnson, visited Ecuador, the two discussed studying the topic further. They were awarded a student-professor collaborative research grant  from the Office of Faculty Development at St. Norbert College to research the subject, and Johnson traveled to Ecuador to collect data for their co-authored study.

In the past few decades, Ecuador and the United States have developed a significant social, political, and economic relationship. In fact, the two countries share the same currency, the U.S. dollar; Ecuador is the only South American country to use the dollar. In 2010, Ecuador exported more than $17 billion in goods to the United States, its most significant trading partner. The two nations are also tied to each other by citizen exchange. There are 50,000 U.S. citizens in Ecuador, while nearly 450,000 Ecuadorian students are in the United States. Despite strong ties between the two nations, virtually no research in Communication literature has examined conflict orientations in Ecuador.

The Study 

The objective of Neuliep and Johnson’s study was to determine the relationship among face concerns, facework, and conflict management style in U.S. and Ecuadorian national culture. To accomplish this, they collected survey responses from 246 college students—114 who were enrolled at a four-year Midwestern U.S. college and 132 students from La Universidad Tecnológica Equinoccial and La Universidad San Francisco de Quito, both urban Ecuadorian universities.

Face and facework choices often depend on relational closeness, another factor that the researchers examined. Respondents were asked to recall a conflict with someone with whom they shared a close relationship or with whom they did not share a close relationship or did not know very well.


The first research question asked whether Ecuadorians and U.S. Americans differed in their concern for face (or self-image) during conflict. However, there were no statistical differences when it came to self-face, other-face, or mutual-face concerns. The second question asked whether Ecuadorians and U.S. Americans differ in their preference for facework during conflict. Here, Neuliep and Johnson did find some important differences. When it came to close relationships, Ecuadorian students preferred pretend/avoidance techniques significantly more than their U.S. counterparts did. Ecuadorians also preferred a give-in/oblige style more than U.S. students did. U.S. students preferred to express emotions significantly more than Ecuadorian students did.

When students were asked to think of a conflict with someone with whom they did not share a close relationship, Ecuadorian students preferred to use a problem-solving conflict style more than U.S. students did. Ecuadorian students also preferred give-in/oblige techniques more than U.S. students did. Finally, U.S. students preferred to express emotions significantly more than Ecuadorian students did.

The third research question asked whether Ecuadorians and U.S. Americans differ in their preference for conflict styles. Again, there were statistically significant differences between the groups. U.S. students preferred integrating conflict styles more than Ecuadorian students. U.S. students also preferred to express emotion much more than Ecuadorian students. Ecuadorian students preferred neglect, avoidance, or compromise more than U.S. study participants.


Perhaps one of the most interesting findings of this study is that Ecuadorian students and U.S. students did not differ on self-face, other-face, or mutual-face concerns across either of the recalled conflict situations (close or not close relationships). The authors posit that cultural globalization may be having a profound impact on Ecuadorian youth. Globalization includes the interaction of different cultural processes and forces by different actors, which ultimately shifts cultural environments. Perhaps Ecuadorian youth are distancing themselves from their roots or changing their cultural way of thinking. Several factors may be leading to globalization in Ecuador, including government transitions, the educational system, international corporations, etc.

Other influences such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, television, music, fashion, and food may also be influencing Ecuadorian youth. “So perhaps, unlike their parents, the Ecuadorian participants in this study are more like their U.S. counterparts regarding face concerns,” write the authors.

This may be the first study to examine face, face-work, and conflict styles in Latin American culture. The results revealed that while Ecuadorian students significantly differed from U.S. students in their conflict-style preferences, they did not differ in their concern for self-face, other-face, or mutual-face. Given the political and economic ties between the United States and Ecuador, perhaps business and interpersonal interactions among U.S. Americans and Ecuadorians can be facilitated by recognizing these important communication differences (and similarities). 

About the author (s)

James W. Neuliep

St. Nobert College


Morgan Johnson

St. Nobert College

Gap Experience Assistant Director