When Values Collide: Steps to Take When You Feel Lost

Each of us is inevitably faced with a situation where our values collide. One example for this comes from the life of my mother. She was born and raised in a small village in Germany, where, at that time, women were still expected to stay at home and take care of the household. It was not the life she imagined, and so she had to fight extremely hard in order to get what she wanted, move to the city and get a degree in education. Now, with the immigration growing in Germany, she is afraid that her value of gender equality, which now is very important in Germany, will be threatened. So for instance, whenever a man from a Muslim background is not willing to shake her hand, to her this is in violation of the value of gender equality. At the same time, however, she does have an equally strong value of equality of all humans, and of benevolence Thus, she made the decision to support and take care of a Syrian refugee family.

I am very proud of her that she made this decision. It helps to foster understanding between the locals and the refugees that are currently arriving in Germany, while helping the family (especially their children) to integrate into Germany society. At the same time, however, I also understand that the issue of gender equality will always remain very important to her, and that on the long run it will be necessary to bring more clarity into how to deal with these value clashes.

While in my view, this is only a perceived value clash since I believe that the behaviour of not shaking hands between men and women does not display gender inequality, but has completely different historical backgrounds, it is nonetheless a clash that has real consequences and that urgently needs to be resolved if a positive relationship between Syrian migrants and local Germans is to be established.

The question is now: what steps can you take if you are in a similar clash of values?

Since I do not know your personal circumstances – from where you have emigrated, and to which country you have moved, let us answer this question by putting ourselves into the perspective of one of these Syrian refugees. You have grown up in an environment where Islam plays a very influential role in your community. In your cultural environment, you have learned that not shaking hands with the opposite gender is a sign of modesty and chastity. According to your beliefs, nobody has a right to touch another without permission, and thus by  not shaking hands you are showing your respect to the other person. In short, for you not shaking hands is a result from your values of modesty and respect.

In your new cultural environment (Germany) respect is also very important. However, the way it is being displayed is completely different. In fact, shaking hands, whether it is with the opposite- or the same gender, is a display of respect. Therefore, by not shaking hands with someone from the opposite gender in Germany, you are unintentionally doing exactly the opposite of what you are trying to communicate to the other person. So, what do you do?

1. Ask yourself where this value is coming from and what is really means to you

In our example, we have essentially already done this. Often times, in our cultures we emphasize a certain behaviour, but we do not necessarily know where its coming from. In this example, essentially the two countries have the same values, but they display these values through different behaviour. In other cases, the countries may have completely different values, which makes the situation even harder. Lastly, countries can also display the same behaviour, but with different mentalities behind them, which can potentially lead to confusion. Either way, the important point here is that you explore what this value really means to you and whether starting to shake hands with the opposite gender in order to fit into your host society would really violate your values.

2. Ask yourself whether you really need to let go of one value in order to live the other? Is there a way to reframe one value in a way that brings both of them into alignment?

This is, I believe, the question that has the most potential in this particular case. From my perspective, the most logical solution for a Syrian migrant would be to change their behaviour in order to suit local customs (shake hands with the opposite gender), while at the same time retaining their values of modesty, chastity, and respect for the other. I know this is easy for me to say, as I am not in the person’s situation. But it is how I now treat similar situations.

For instance, when I first moved to Indonesia, which was my first country to move to, I found out that their way of greeting is like the one you see in the picture below:


Photo Credit: Getty Sungkem, Mirror.co.uk

In Indonesia, this act, where you bow your head and essentially kiss the hand of the other person, is a sign of respect for your superiors and your elders. Since this was my first time overseas, it took me a long time to get accustomed to this tradition. I did not see why I should kiss the hands of my elders – after all we were still equal despite the fact that he or she was olderWell, in Indonesia showing your respect to your elders is very important, and sooner or later I needed to embrace that in order to grow more closely into the local society. And so, that’s the decision I made.

In other cases, however, such an act of reframing might either not be possible, or you are not ready to take such a step just yet.

3. Ask yourself: how does living according to each conflicting value affect my current living condition, as well as my future development

In the first step, we have already thought about how our past has influenced the values we are currently holding. Now it is time to look at both, our present and our future. Some values may be more beneficial to our own personal development than others. One example for this would be the value of correctness. In that sense, we Germans are often perceived to be very correct, and rule-abiding citizens. In other countries, however, people may see rules in a much more flexible way. If you are a German, and you are living in a country like that, then perhaps it will be better for your future success in the country of your choice to let go of some of the correctness that comes natural to you, as it may be perceived as unnecessary, or even annoying.

4. Ask yourself, what needs to happen for you to perceive your values as fulfilled?

This is an important question, which first has been asked by Anthony Robbins in his book “Unlimited Power”. Oftentimes, we may know what our values are, but we do not have a very clear picture of what actually needs to happen for us to feel like we are living our values.

To get back to our picture of the Syrian refugee coming to Germany, this is the point where he or she should envision in as much detail as possible what specific behaviours and outcomes should be achieved in order to fulfill the three values of modesty, chastity, and respect. How do you want both yourself as well as the other person to feel in order to have these values fulfilled? What do I want him or her to think (of me)? What impression do I want to make on him or her, and which impression am I currently likely to make? Are there alternative behaviours to shaking hands by which I can display these values to my conversation partners?

These are four questions that you can ask yourself in order to overcome some of your value clashes. If you have ever been in such a situation, let me know how it felt and what you did to overcome it. If you’ve tried asking yourself these questions, also let me know what the results were. Best of luck, and looking forward to hearing from you!


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