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A Psycholinguistic Comparative Study of the Strategic Conflict-handing Behavior of Russians and Americans

Pevneva Inna Vladimirovna

PhD in Philology

Docent, the Department of Foreign Languages, T. F. Gorbachev's Kuzbass State Technical University

650000, Russia, Kemerovskaya oblast', g. Kemerovo, ul. Vesennyaya, 28

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Abstract: The research is devoted to the study of the verbal behavior of the Russians and Americans based on the choice of the strategies of behavior in the conflict situations. The phenomenon of conflict and challenges of misunderstanding appear today extremely acute in all areas of social and international relations. Verbal communication involves a strategic process by which a speaker defines the language resources for its implementation. By choosing a strategy which should contribute to the goals and objectives of the interaction a speaker makes the process of communication either successful or leading to a communicative failure.The object of the research is the natural communication. The study is based on the principles of psycholinguistics and ethno-linguistics, which studies the cultural variability in cognitive and communicative aspect of speech. The scientific importance of this work is in multi disciplined and cross-cultural study of ethnic and cultural influences, gender and other characteristics of conflict discourse participants. The results might present an interest for the participants and alumni of the international academic exchange programs (students and teaching staff) as well to specialists whose jobs are associated with the functioning in a multicultural Russian-American environment.

Keywords: strategies, verbal aggression, Americans, Russians, verbal behavior, communication, conflict, gender, cooperation, confrontation


The purpose of this research was to explore Russians' and Americans' concepts of conflict and the psycholinguistic conflict-handling differences between Russians and Americans. Specifically, we studied the communicative strategies Russians and Americans use when faced with either a person-to-person or a person-situation conflict, and the choices students make when in conflict situations with professors.

Research regarding Russians' and Americans' psycholinguistic perceptions of conflict has been limited but the volume of tourism, trade, study and migration that now necessitates intercultural interaction and the potential for conflict gives rise to the need for greater understanding and tolerance of differences. Among the few to study interactions between Russians and Americans, Matveev and Nelson found that both Russian and American managers said that intercultural competence is critical for working in multicultural teams [1].

Psycholinguistic comparisons of the Russian word конфликтоватъ meaning "to conflict" the English word "conflict" reveal differences. The Thesaurus of Contemporary Russian Language [2] defines conflict as "To enter [a] conflict with someone," Definitions of conflict offered by Russian and Soviet researchers illustrate contradictions between interests, purposes or motives, but also present negative emotions and the desire to cause damage to opponents. The dichotomous concept is cooperation [3]. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English offers the following definition of conflict: "...when two ideas or opinions cannot exist together" [4] American researchers such as Edmondson and Smith cite "personality differences and interpersonal tensions" as being at the heart of conflict [5]. Thus, it is possible to assume that in the Russian verbal consciousness, counteraction to the opponent is emphasized while for Americans the subject of the conflict (i.e. the belief or course of action) is in question.

These dichotomous definitions of the Russian and American concepts of conflict could be attributed to the fact that conflict may be related to process, condition, and cause and effect at the same time. Anisimova asserts that conflict can be psycholinguistically classified as occurring on either the static or dynamic plane [6]. One's lexical concept of the cause and effect of his/her conflict is referred to as the static plane. The term "I'm mad at my spouse for spending too much money" is an example of the static plane of thought. The dynamic plane of conflict, on the other hand, characterizes conflict as a behavior and stresses the interaction related to the conflict. The phrase "My spouse and I quarreled over money" is an example of a dynamic conceptualization of conflict.

Linguists who have conducted research on conflict (Bunk, 1990, Esser & Walker, 1991, Maddux, 1992) have examined conflict-handling strategies from the point of view of the "self" in altercation with "another."[7,8,9] It was found that conflict strategies can be classified as cooperation (constructive), distancing (neutral) or confrontation (destructive). The cooperative strategy of conflict-handling includes compromise (tactics of promise, agreement and compliment), cooperation (tactics of rational persuasion, agreement and support) and adjustment (tactics of concession, sympathy and changing the topic). Distancing strategy includes an attitude of active neutrality (concession) and passive neutrality (silencing and ignoring). The third strategy - confrontation - consists of manipulation (threat, pressure, appeal to authority), and verbal aggression (insult and criticism). Verbal aggression can also include autoaggression, which is aggression directed not at another person, but toward the speaker him/herself [10]. For the present study, four dependent variables were used: cooperation, distancing, confrontation (manipulation), verbal aggression (aggression toward self or other).

Fomin also found that there are differences between men and women in terms of conflict-handling [11]. Women, regardless of nationality, are less aggressive than men and in general they focus on establishing contact, building relationships and finding mutual understanding. Men, on the other hand, often reveal competitive and dominating behaviors. However, until now no studies revealing psycholinguistic choices and gender difference have been conducted.

We sought to clarify the differences in Americans' and Russians' perceptions of conflict and conflict-handling strategies, and to shed light on gender differences with regard to psycholinguistic choices and thus derived the following hypotheses:

H1 - There are psycholinguistic differences between Russians' and Americans' definitions of conflict.

H2 - Russians and Americans will make different verbal choices in situations of conflict.

H3 - There are differences between Russian and American men and women with regard to psycholinguistic choices when in conflict situations.


Two-hundred-and-fifty students (118 males and 132 females) from a state university in Siberia and 248 students (107 males and 141 females) from a state university in central Pennsylvania participated in this experiment. Three questionnaires were used to gather data: The Conflict Questionnaire, The Situation Response Questionnaire and a word association test. Free-response (24 items), nominal (6 items) and multiple-choice questions (16 items) appeared on the questionnaires and, thus, the data was analyzed both qualitatively and quantitatively.

The free-response items on The Conflict Questionnaire were content-analyzed by lexical units of conflict and emerging patterns were noted. Linguistic markers included, for example, one word phrases without emotional charge like "fine" or "OK, I agree" which show distancing. The lexical units were also examined for subject, object, motive, reason for and form of aggression, and attitude toward aggression.

The Conflict Questionnaire also included items allowing students to choose responses that best described how they would most likely react in student-professor conflict interactions. In addition, participants completed the Situation Response Questionnaire and thus were given situational models of speech with five possible responses and asked to choose the verbal response that best represented how they would react in potential conflict situations. Each of the proposed variants of verbal reaction corresponds to a particular conflict-handling strategy including cooperation, confrontation, distancing, aggression (sometimes tested as autoaggression), or other (see Appendix A for complete survey). For example, item 4, with the option of autoaggression, presents as follows:

You are watching an exciting program on TV when suddenly it is interrupted by commercials. What would you say?

a. This is a good chance to get a drink (cooperative).

b. I shouldn't even have started watching this show (autoaggression).

c. I'm going to switch to another [network] for sure (distancing).

d. I bet this [network] never pays the taxes on the profit they get from broadcasting all of

these commercials (aggression).

e. Other (suggest an alternate course of action).

Item 3 offers confrontation as a possible choice.

You are waiting at the bus stop, but the bus fails to stop for you. What would you say?

a. These busses never come on time (aggression).

b. I'm going to call the transportation inspector. That driver will be fired (confrontation).

c. I'll never take this bus again (distancing).

d. I need to think about getting a car (cooperation).

e. Other (suggest an alternative course of action).

These the multiple-choice questions were analyzed using Fisher's Angular Transformation. Russian scholars in psychology and pedagogy use Fisher's Angular Transformation as for all sizes of data [12,13].

Nominal data was also collected from both groups. Six questions allowed students to "circle all that apply. Item 4 on the Conflict Questionnaire, for instance, read as follows:

For what reason would you behave rudely toward or argue with a professor? Circle all that apply.

a. when you are dissatisfied with a grade

b. because you want to show off

c. if his/her class is boring

d. if he/she does not give you enough attention

e. if he/she is rude to you

f. if you like him/her

g. if you don't like him/her

h. other

Frequencies of responses were gathered for these six items.


Concepts of Conflict

We first hypothesized that there would be psycholinguistic differences between Russians' and Americans' definitions of conflict. Indeed, there is a difference. Each group revealed its own use of lexical units with regard to conflict.

The definition of the concept conflict given by Russian respondents stressed contradiction of interests and opinions. Some examples are as follows: Conflict is...an argument with opinion discrepancy, confrontation of different people's interests, a situation that arises as a result of opinion discrepancy, a situation of misunderstanding.

In addition, in Russian verbal consciousness, conflict is associated with negative consequences for mutual relations and unwillingness to cooperate. (Conflict is...a situation when serious contradictions arise, a situation if they cannot find compromise, irreconcilable contradictions (negative result), unwillingness to accept someone's point of view) and considerable emotional loading with a priority on verbal or physical aggression (Conflict is...rage, tension, discrepency of two people's ideas shown in the rough form, transition to a higher pitch of voice, aggressive collision of interests, quarrel, fight).

Verbal Choices in Situations of Conflict

Our second hypothesis was that Russians and Americans would make different verbal choices in situations of conflict. We found support for this hypothesis as well for the strategies of confrontation and aggression. The analysis of the verbal reactions for the multiple choice questions showed that 39% of the Russian students preferred to use cooperation, while 37% of the American students chose this strategy. Only 14% of the Russians and 11% of the Americans use the distancing strategy. However, 36% of the Russians chose the strategy of confrontation as opposed to 25% of the American respondents and 11% of the Russians (vs. 27% of the Americans) chose aggression. See Table 1.

Table 1

Significance Levels for Strategic Conflict-handling Choices of Russians and Americans

Conflict Strategy

Russians (n1=250)

Americans (n2=248)

Fisher’s criterion φ* (value level)



φ1 =1.349


φ2 =1.308

0.457 (>0.1)



φ1 =0.767


φ2 =0.676

1.015 (>0.1)



φ1 =1.287


φ2 =1.047

2.678 (0.003)



φ1 =0.676


φ2 =1.093

4.653 (0.0001)

Note. Fisher’s criterion (φ*) is used to determine statistical significance such that the critical value of φ* = 1.64 (p < .05 and 2.31 (p < .01).

One question, Item 11 on The Situation Response Questionniare, was designed to reveal strategic differences specifically related to student-professor interactions. Table 2 reveals the results of this question.

Table 2

Significance Levels for Strategic Conflict-handling Choices during Student-professor Interactions

Conflict Strategy

Russians (n1=250)

Americans (n2=248)

Fisher’s criterion φ* (value level)



φ1 =0.850


φ2 =0.574

3.08 (0.001)



φ1 =1.611


φ2 =1.834

2.48 (0.001)



φ2 =1.961


φ1 =1.287

7.52 (0.0001)

Note. Fisher’s criterion (φ*) is used to determine statistical significance such that the critical value of φ* = 1.64 (p < .05 and 2.31 (p < .01).


We also hypothesized that there would be differences between Russian and American men and women with regard to psycholinguistic choices when in conflict situations and indeed significant differences were found between sexes for each nationality for all four dimensions. In addition, significant differences were found between Russian and American men and between Russian and American women for distancing and aggression.

Russian women use the cooperation strategy far more often than do Russian males. Of the Russians who chose cooperation, this strategy was used by 66% of the females, but only 34% of the males. The gender difference for cooperation was almost identical for the Americans who chose it. Thirty-five percent of those were men and 65% were women. Results showed that 100% of the Russians who use the distancing strategy are women, while 100% of the Americans who chose this strategy are men. Another significant effect was found for confrontation for Russians. Thirty-eight percent of those who chose it were men, while 62% are women. Finally, a very high percentage of Russians who chose the strategy of aggression were women (72%), while far fewer were men (28%). There was a significant difference between American men and women for this dimension as well, but it was not as pronounced (57% men vs. 42% women).


The emerging lexical units for Americans in describing conflict reveal a dynamic plane of handling conflict. That is, Americans focus more on the actions related to engaging in the conflict, rather than the cause and effect. The analysis showed that conflict is associated in the American language consciousness not only with the presence of opposition but also with the necessity of resolution. (Conflict is...some uncomfortable situation that needs resolving, a situation that arises between two or more people which pushes them to seek a resolution, a situation in which two parties disagree usually has a resolution which may or may not be mutual ). Americans further defined conflict as ...disagreement that sometimes results in fighting, disagreement with another that becomes prolonged, a misunderstanding that escalated into a fight, something that can cause an argument. We found domination of the static component in the interpretation of the concept of conflict in Russian language consciousness, with emphasis on causes and effects of conflicts. Intersubjectivity is a distinctive feature of the Russian interpretation of conflict; however, there was an absence of desire or possibility of cooperation or compromise. Both Russians and Americans stress negative emotional consequences resulting from conflict. (a situation involving hostility and anger, relations may end up with struggling, a disturbance between two or more sides may result in violence or hatred ).

We also found that both Americans and Russians prefer the cooperation strategy not only most, but in almost equal proportions (39% of Russians and 37% of Russians prefer this strategy). This suggests that, in terms of conflict communication, we are more similar than different. Many participants expressed constructive ways of dealing with conflict. The results for distancing also revealed more similarities than differences between Russians and Americans (14% of Russians and 11% of Americans chose distancing).

The greatest differences between Russians and Americans in terms of handling conflict occurred for confrontation and aggression. Russians appear to be more comfortable with confrontation than are Americans (36% of Russians and 25% of Americans chose this strategy). A distinctive sign of conflict in Russian language consciousness is the characteristic of an aggressive line of conduct expressed in verbal or physical interaction, which is often followed by negative emotional or interpersonal consequences (anger, insult). Russian young people revealed confrontational verbal choices in the form of verbal aggression (ex. Why are you pushing forward; I would start to curse )or physical threats (ex. I will smash his face or I would hit his face ).The finding of greatest statistical significance, though, was that Americans far more often than Russians actually choose the strategy of aggression (16% more Americans chose this strategy).

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