11. Coping with Conflict
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140«.«.« 11 ».».» Coping with Conflict Avoiding Clashes The fourteen-year-old boy had been at Xavier High School for only a few months, but he seemed especially mature for his years. He was bright, near the top of his class, and was well respected by his classmates. As we sat chatting in my office one day, he casually mentioned that some of his clothes were missing. When I asked him what exactly was missing, he said that he had lost a shirt, a pair of pants, and five sets of briefs. When I inquired how they had been lost, he told me that he had hung out his clothes to dry on the line outside the dormitory and had found them gone a few hours later. “Maybe they just walked away,” he said with a smile on his face. I was perplexed at the boy’s reaction. There he sat with the same broad smile on his face even as he described the theft of nearly his whole wardrobe. I would have been enraged if this had happened to me. I tried to elicit a stronger reaction from him. “So, all these clothes of yours were stolen?” I asked. He simply shrugged and smiled. For the next few minutes I listed the possibilities for him: the thief could have been one of his classmates, or perhaps someone from the senior class, since there were a couple of seniors who were known to be of dubious character, or possibly a villager who had snuck up one day and helped himself to whatever he found on the clothesline. I suggested that he set a trap to find out who the thief was: he could leave a shirt or two on the line and we would watch to see who removed it. At this suggestion, the boy’s eyes wandered for the first time during our Coping with Conflict 141 conversation as if he were searching for a way to tell me that he didn’t want to set a trap because it would embarrass him just as much as the thief. Even as his eyes wandered, though, the puzzling smile remained on his face the whole while. “Doesn’t anyone ever get angry?” I used to wonder in my first years in Micronesia. The kind of conversation recounted above would happen frequently, as students would relate with a smile on their face, how their last pair of underwear had been stolen or how they had suffered some other injustice. I could only marvel at their equanimity as they joked about their misfortune. People came across as so friendly and gentle in their behavior toward one another, some of us wondered whether they ever experienced strong negative emotions. If they did, how were these feelings expressed and how did these people deal with whatever triggered their anger? It took me years to understand that small Pacific Island societies are much better organized to prevent conflict than to resolve it once it occurs. Hostile parties can easily tear apart small communities, and even small quarrels are magnified in tiny populations. Keeping the family and community united, with its members on good terms with one another, is an overriding concern in Micronesia, as we have seen time and again. One strategy for preventing conflict is to impose restraints on individualism in the community. Micronesians are trained from an early age to conform to the expectations of the group; they learn over time to subordinate their own personal interests to the good of the community . In this type of society the flair and creativity of the individual may have to be sacrificed, but this compromise is seen as necessary for maintaining harmony on the island. Quirky artistic types who are liable to challenge the group will always represent a threat to this harmony. The deeply ingrained respect behavior in all Micronesian societies , already discussed in Chapter 7, is another important means of forestalling conflict. The formal pattern of respect within a family, with its emphasis on age and gender, may have created a hierarchical structure among family members and some social distance between them, but it also helped to keep the peace. The public deference that was supposed to be paid to authorities in the village or island served 142 Chapter 11 the same purpose. The type of open exchange that Americans favor in public meetings could result in hurt feelings and lingering animosities in an island society, for it is difficult to separate the issue...


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