Field Guide

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Excerpted from Chapter 5: Mediating Across Cultures in The School Mediator's Field Guide: Prejudice, Sexual Harassment, Large Groups and Other Daily Challenges by Richard Cohen


Mediating Across Cultures

To date, school-based mediation has been used successfully with parties from across the gamut of cultural backgrounds. But the mediation process must be similarly scrutinized regarding its applicability for the diverse population in North American schools. One thing is certain: Mediation as it is most often practiced here is a product of late twentieth century, North American culture. As such, the process has elements that are inappropriate or even offensive to parties from particular cultural backgrounds. These elements include not only simple procedural matters, but fundamental principles at the core of the process.

Prior to describing some examples, it is important to stress one point. Culture is learned by osmosis: by watching and internalizing how those around us behave. If one's parents disagree by arguing loudly and expressively, and if most of the people in one's community do the same, then an individual assumes that all people behave this way. To other people in other places, this method of expressing disagreement might appear unseemly if not insane! But it is all that one knows. Culture-bound behavior arises from assumptions that are semi-conscious and difficult to articulate. Approaching the subject of differing cultural behaviors and norms, therefore, presents a singular challenge: It forces us to suspend judgment and question ideas implicitly assumed to be true.

The following examples illustrate how various aspects of the North American mediation process might be inappropriate in other cultural contexts:

  • The mediation process rests upon the belief that direct and open communication between parties in conflict leads to mutually beneficial resolutions. Many Asian cultures do not share this belief. Rather than directly confronting another party, people with this heritage may prefer to employ indirect methods to resolve conflicts (using an intermediary without face-to-face contact, ignoring the conflict, making a joke, etc.). Maintaining harmony — and sometimes only the appearance of harmony — is preferable to direct confrontation in which parties "lose face."
  • Mediators strive to treat parties as equals, regardless of their age, their sex, their position, or their social class. In Latino and other cultures, however, respect for elders is a paramount value. A party of Puerto Rican descent might feel uncomfortable if mediators were younger than himself. And a teacher born in the Dominican Republic might find it offensive to mediate a conflict with a student twenty years her junior.
  • In part because of the Western civilization's faith in science, we assume that people who are strangers to the parties and their conflict make the most effective mediators. The rationale is that strangers are more capable of maintaining their objectivity and impartiality. In many cultures, however, when people in conflict need help, they seek assistance from someone they respect and trust: the head of the household, an uncle or an aunt, an experienced community member or religious leader. The concept of discussing private conflicts with complete strangers strikes many peoples as absurd.
  • North American mediators usually help parties fashion agreements that are ultimately written down. This is because of a cultural assumption that written contracts signify a greater commitment than verbal agreements. This assumption is not shared by countless other cultures. For the Basques of Spain, for instance, "giving one's word" represents the highest degree of commitment. And for many Native Americans, written agreements carry the blemish of the hundreds of broken treaties throughout their history. Parties from these cultures might perceive mediators' preference for creating a written record of what has already been verbally agreed upon as insulting.
  • Mediation emphasizes the power of the individual to control their own fate. Parties determine the resolution of their own conflicts in the privacy of the mediation session. In many cultures, however, the individual does not operate in such an autonomous universe. Instead, they have a clear and profound responsibility to their community. Parties' friends, relatives, and neighbors all have a stake in the outcome of their dispute. When the mediation process is used in these cultures, a community representative or elder either mediates or sits in on the sessions.
  • Most mediators are taught that an essential aspect of listening is to look parties in the eye while communicating with them; making "eye contact" is a sign of respect and attentiveness in North America. In Cambodian and other Asian cultures, however, direct eye contact can be perceived as rude, prying or disrespectful. This is especially true if it is done by "inappropriate" people and at "inappropriate" times. Mediators who are simply making "eye contact" with Asian-American parties might be offending them unawares.