When the Fear of Conflict Meets Collectivism

How Filial Piety and prioritizing the community compounded my fear of conflict

Growing up, I was always afraid of conflict. It made me anxious, stressed, and was something I avoided as much as possible.

One of the reasons why I hated it so much was my personality. In general, I’m a non-confrontational person. I’d much rather keep things to myself rather than “rock the boat” in a relationship by bringing up an issue.

Another reason was the intense and frequent conflicts I experienced in my family. Having traditional Korean parents as a kid in the U.S. was not easy. There were a lot of hurdles we had to overcome even at the most basic level of communication.

I’m not fluent in Korean. My parents are not fluent in English. This has led to lots of misunderstandings due to the language barriers.

Here’s a quick example. In Korean, a direct translation of the word seki (새끼) is “offspring”. Parents often use this word as a term of endearment with their children by calling them nea seki (내 새끼) or “my offspring.” However, seki can also be used as a cuss word such as gae seki (개 새끼) which means “son of a b*tch". As you can tell, these two phrases are similar but convey two very different meanings. Unfortunately, this was something that may or may not have been misinterpreted by non-native Korean speakers such as myself or my brother.

But the conflict didn’t just just stop with the misunderstanding. The language barrier exacerbated the situation further because we couldn’t understand one another fully which compounded the pain. It was difficult to get closure because we didn’t know where the other person was coming from.

But perhaps the most significant factors to my fear of conflict were my collectivistic values. There are two that come to mind that that I’d like to explore today: Prioritizing the community and filial piety.


Disclaimer: I want to be very clear. I don’t believe cultural values are inherently moral. In other words, they are neither good or bad. There are many great aspects to collectivism. But it is possible that these values can become harmful and detrimental as it manifests in people or in society. Read the difference between collectivism vs. individualism for a quick primer if you haven’t already.


Value #1: Prioritizing the Community

One of the primary core values in collectivism is to place the community over yourself. This is one of the reasons why being self-sacrificial is so highly admired. It perfectly demonstrates the willingness to place the group above yourself.

One of the ways I acted on this core value is by keeping my burdens to myself. There was a lot of pain I chose to keep inside because I didn’t want to burden others with my problems. In my head, I was doing something honorable because I was sacrificing myself on behalf of my family and friend. But what ended up happening was that I ended up being lonely.

It was hard for me to connect with people because I wasn’t vulnerable with others. Nobody asked me how I was doing because on the outside it looked like everything was “fine.” It also never occured to me to ask for help even though I desperately wanted to talk to someone because I didn’t want to burden them.

Another consequence of bottling up my emotions is that I would lash out in passive aggressive ways. For example with my parents, rather than telling them that I hated it when they put food on my plate especially when I was full, I would put the food back. This was something that probably confused and hurt my parents. To them, they were sharing food out of love. By putting the food back, I was rejecting it.

Other examples include intentionally disobeying them out of spite but never telling them why and getting mad at little things they did and completely shutting down after.

Although these are small examples, thousands of them can build up significant Emotional Debt and lead to relational death.

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Value #2: Filial Piety

Filial Piety means to be good to your parents and being obedient to them. It even extends to behaving well in public so that it reflects well on your parent’s reputation.

There are several layers to Filial Piety to explore. But for now, I wanted to touch on the aspect that extols obedience and submission to parents.

First of all, I readily admit that there were many times when I should’ve been more obedient to my parents. I should’ve taken their advice on being more patient when driving. I should’ve taken their advice to study more in High School. I should’ve been more disciplined in learning Korean.

But there were times when I should’ve confronted my parents but Filial Piety made it hard. I was too scared to bring anything up because I didn’t want to disrespect them. I was scared that they may get offended and overreact.

Filial Piety also created an enormous power differential which was overwhelming at times. As the youngest in the family, I felt like it was impossible for my voice to be heard. This was especially difficult in moments that crossed into physical or emotional abuse.

Ultimately, avoiding conflict had the opposite effect than what I had intended. I thought it would bring us closer together, but instead we grew further apart. It created a wall between me and my parents. I became entrenched in bitterness and built huge Emotional Debt that I needed to pay down in order for us to repair the relationship.

Conclusion

There are many facets to collectivism that made conflict difficult for me, especially within the context of my family. But what I ended up realizing is that avoiding conflict was passively sucking the life out of my relationships.

I thought I was doing the right thing by keeping things to myself. My intention was to preserve the relational intimacy by avoiding conflict. But what I was I was really doing was kicking the can further down the road which would then snowball into something bigger.

Eventually, I discovered that there is actually a lot of freedom and empowerment in conflict. We’ll explore this topic more in-depth next week.

Discussion Questions

  • Are you afraid of conflict? Why?

  • How has culture played a role in making it easier or harder for you to embrace conflict?

  • In what ways can conflict be good?