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Cultural Awareness - What Does That Actually Mean?

by Alan Sharland
September 2010 Alan Sharland
(....Or how, what is often called Cultural Awareness is actually simply cultural stereotyping - meaning it is more likely to lead to disconnection than connection between people ........)

I've always had doubts about the idea of 'Cultural Awareness' training as I find it a difficult idea to come to terms with that anyone can really sum up what a particular culture's tendencies are. I find the whole idea of defining someone as being of a particular 'culture' quite limiting.

For example, I might be considered to be from a 'white' culture, but what does that mean about me? I might be considered from 'male' culture, and what does that mean about me? Or if I'm 'middle class' or 'working class' what does that mean about me? And of course I could go on in relation to my age, my place of birth etc.

For example I am a 'Southern' Englishman, which, apparently, means I am different in definable ways to 'Northern' Englishmen. And of course Englishmen are deemed to be different to Scotsmen and Irishmen.....though I'm not clear in what way.

But I hear quite often that difficulties between people are due to 'cultural issues' - but I'm not clear what makes an issue a 'cultural' one and not just simply a 'difference', which can exist between any of us at times.

For example, if I have a disagreement with a black person, is that a 'cultural' issue? Because I am 'white' and he is 'black'? Or if I fall out with a woman is that due to 'gender' issues, because she is from a 'female' culture and I am from a 'male' one?

It seems to me that when such explanations are put forward for people falling out over something they create an unnecessary barrier to resolution of a situation.

It is as if to say it's somehow inevitable that because people come from a different culture they will fall out and their ‘culture’ is the reason for their falling out. But which culture do we pick? If it is a man and a woman falling out, is it because of their difference in gender? But what if one is black and the other white? Is it then a 'racial' issue? What if one is older and one is younger? Is it then an 'age' issue? What if one is rich and the other poor, is it a 'socio-economic class' issue? What if one is disabled and one is not, is it then a disability issue?

Does it actually have any relevance? I don't think it does.

All that matters is two people have fallen out and supporting them in creating a resolution is the most important thing, not carrying preconceptions about their ‘culture’ into the situation to add complexity and at the same time rigidity to the process of resolution.

I find it strange that some mediators describe themselves as 'cross cultural' mediators. All mediators are cross cultural, just pick a culture difference between the parties you are mediating and you've become a cross cultural mediator.

Are they from different religions? Ok it is a cross cultural dispute. From different levels of affluence? Ok it is a cross cultural dispute.

Who is the person who analyses a situation and says the conflict is 'cultural'? All conflicts arise from difference, but whether that difference is affected by age, gender, race, geographical location, disability etc. can be a source of infinite analysis without ever coming up with a definable answer and is, ultimately, irrelevant. And why, as mediators, would we want to analyse it anyway? We’re not coming up with the answer, we’re helping them to.

What matters is what the people involved want to be different about their relationship so that their conflict does not remain unresolved.

I was at a talk recently, given by a well known mediator and he claimed at the meeting that it is 'the culture' of Italian people to interrupt each other, and that that is a reason why, in mediation, we should not have a ground rule asking people not to interrupt each other during a face to face mediation meeting.

Really?

All Italian people interrupt each other? And we would be being culturally insensitive by requesting that an Italian person should not interrupt another person during a face to face mediation meeting?

And we should 'understand' that that is their culture and so if someone finds that difficult when trying to converse with them then they should appreciate that 'cultural difference' and presumably accept, on the basis of 'cultural sensitivity' that when speaking to an Italian person, you should not expect to be listened to nor be allowed to finish your sentence?

First of all, is that really true of 'Italian people'? Secondly, is that a basis for accepting being interrupted? I have yet to find something that deals with ‘cultural difference’ that is not in itself prone to gross generalisations about groups.

I have mentioned elsewhere how I once attended a Cultural Awareness training session where I was told that when meeting with an Asian family I should not look the women in the eye, and I should converse with the husband and not the wife in order to not offend him (and Asia covers a fairly vast area of the planet so we are looking at a fairly broad generalisation here).

I was surprised by this at the time as I worked in a school in central London where I met Asian women and girls on a daily basis and we had no particular difficulties with having eye contact while talking. I also had a friend who was Indian and who had married an Indian woman and he was very keen that she speak for herself in situations rather than defer to him as the only spokesperson for the family.

Ultimately a lot of cultural awareness training is based on a fear of offending people, and is at its worst when it becomes a form of ‘political correctness’. Instead of promoting an open discussion of things after they have happened it presumes to know beforehand what will and will not offend people and tries to stop it happening.

So for example we have the presence of Christmas card bans in some organisations for fear of offending non-Christians, particularly Moslems. This, despite many Moslem organisations actively declaring that they are not offended by Christmas cards.

The ‘cultural awareness’ proponents scare the already paranoid Heads of some of these organisations into making such sweeping policies.

We once had, in the UK, some local authorities banning the singing of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as it was considered to be offensive to Black people. A couple of years ago I saw a lovely little trio of black girls happily singing that very song up and down the aisle of my local supermarket with a black woman, presumably their mother, walking along behind beaming a proud smile at her happy singing girls.

A black friend of mine who was doing a Social Work degree once told me about a time she was in a queue with a white Lecturer who ordered ‘coffee without milk’ as it was less offensive than to order ‘black coffee’.

An issue at the moment is the suppression of Moslem women in Europe, particularly France but also in other countries, wearing the hijab. It may be deemed a symbol of oppression in some Moslem countries that we wish to demonise at the moment but it is also oppressive to tell Moslem women in our own country that they should not wear the hijab.

Do we tell women they should not wear a mini skirt? Who decides that a hijab is oppressive?

There are many Moslem women in the UK saying passionately that they wish to wear the hijab and don’t expect to be told by others that they should or should not. Surely in a non-oppressive society which contrasts itself with other ‘oppressive’ societies the choice is theirs and no-one else’s?

Cultural awareness can often be more about suppressing conflict or thinking that we know what others will find offensive and trying to rescue them from that before it happens. Its intention is understandable, but ultimately ineffective and not a little patronising.

I don’t need to know whether someone is Italian or not before I address their continuing interrupting of me when I talk. I don’t need to know if someone is Moslem or not before I send them a Christmas card or if a women is Asian or not before I look her in the eye. All I need to be is open to hearing that someone finds some aspect of my behaviour difficult, if they do, and for both of us to be willing to address that IF it happens.

Cultural awareness training, when it defines ‘cultures’ in terms of stereotypes does not enable me to do that. It risks alienating me from other cultures due to a feeling of discomfort or fear of expressing myself in their presence.

And when you consider how many different ‘cultures’ we can list that define any particular individual, it is surprising many of us feel safe to express ourselves at all for fear of offending at least one of the cultural categories someone falls into in any given interaction we may have. This discomfort, in turn often leads to resentment towards those who are spoken for as being ‘offended’ by a particular action or behaviour.

Check out your 'Cultural Awareness' score.... Incidentally, for a bit of fun, before writing this I did a couple of Cultural Awareness Quizzes that I found on a website.

Did you know that:

In Australia, you should expect business deals to be long and protracted?

When greeting a Moslem woman you should wait for her to extend a hand before shaking hands.

A handshake in China should be limp and brief. (How limp is limp and how brief is brief?)

And finally: "The British are very reserved and private people. Privacy is extremely important. The British will not necessarily give you a tour of their home and, in fact, may keep most doors closed. They expect others to respect their privacy. This extends to not asking personal questions. The question, “Where are you from?” may be viewed as an attempt to “place” the person on the social or class scale. Even close friends do not ask pointedly personal questions, particularly pertaining to one’s financial situation or relationships." - From Kwintessential So, don't ask me where I'm from, nor about my personal relationships, even if you become a friend, and you sure ain't getting to take a look round my place. Hey, don't I sound like someone you'd like to get to know?

Cultural Awareness - Really?

Biography


I came into mediation in 1994 from being a Mathematics teacher in a Secondary School in Camden, London. There was often violence in the area in which I taught and pupils that I taught were involved in violence, either as victims or perpetrators.

It led me to attend a course on conflict resolution in order to try to understand the reasons that conflicts are responded to in ways that can be so destructive.

To cut a long story short this led to me becoming a Mediator for Camden Mediation Service as a volunteer Community Mediator, dealing mainly with neighbour disputes. My teaching background helped me to move quite quickly into training of Mediators as well and by 1996 I was employed at Camden Mediation Service as a Case Worker.

In 2000 I set up and became Director of a community mediation service, Hillingdon Community Mediation where I worked for 11 years until its closure in March 2011, providing mediation in neighbour disputes in West London, training of mediators for our service and other organisations and developing a pilot project in Conflict Coaching.

In April 2011 I set up CAOS Conflict Management which provides mediation in a wide range of types of dispute, conflict coaching and conflict management training and consultancy, as well as training in mediation and conflict coaching skills.

I also have a website called Communication and Conflict which describes the thinking behind various aspects of mediation, conflict coaching and conflict management practise.



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Website: www.caos-conflict-management.co.uk

Additional articles by Alan Sharland

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