Cultural Issues in Mediation: Individualist and Collectivist Paradigms

I. Cultural Issues in Mediation: Individualist and Collectivist Paradigms

A. Introduction

Every mediation has a unique character influenced by the cultural perspectives of its
participants. Differences in perspectives may impede an agreement if the participants’ views diverge
on such fundamental issues as individual autonomy and group interdependence. When issues based
on individual rights or strong group identification arise in a mediation, a mediator’s awareness of
individualist and collectivist paradigms can help surmount such cultural barriers to an agreement.
Familiarity with the paradigms may be helpful because mediation models in the United States are
based upon individualist cultural assumptions that group-oriented, or collectivist, participants in a
mediation may not share.

B. Attributes of individualists and collectivists

1.Individualism and individualists

Individualism is a social pattern that places the highest value on the interests of the
individual. Individualists view themselves as independent and only loosely connected to the groups
of which they are a part. When establishing the level of their commitment to others, individualists
balance the advantages and disadvantages of cultivating and maintaining a relationship; the level of
commitment generally corresponds to the level of perceived benefit. Personal preferences, needs,
rights and goals are individualists’ primary concerns, and they tend to place a high value on personal
freedom and achievement. Self-reliance and competitiveness are common individualist traits. When
personal goals conflict with group goals, individualists tend to give priority to their personal goals.(1)

2. Collectivism and collectivists

Collectivism is a social pattern that places the highest value on the interests of the
group. Collectivists view themselves as interdependent and closely linked to one or more groups.
They often are willing to maintain a commitment to a group even when their obligations to the group
are personally disadvantageous. Norms, obligations and duties to groups are collectivists’ primary
concerns, and they tend to place a high value on group harmony and solidarity. Respectfulness and
cooperation are common collectivist traits. When personal goals conflict with group norms,
collectivists tend to conform to group norms.(2)

C. Factors affecting individualist and collectivist behavior

1. Socialization. While all people manifest individualist and collectivist
characteristics in varying degrees, the extent to which they exhibit one set of traits more than another
usually depends upon their socialization. All children begin their lives in a collectivist context,
dependent on their parents and any other adults who rear them. In individualist societies, however,
children often are encouraged to identify personal preferences and to pursue personal goals and
achievements. As a consequence, they begin to establish separate identities from their parents and
other caregivers. With the passage of time, such children’s pursuit of personal ends can create
conflicts between their goals and the norms of their caregivers. In an individualist society, the
pursuit of personal goals that conflict with family norms may be acceptable, even expected.
Children’s successful cultivation of separate identities leads to a degree of detachment from their
families by the time they are adults. Detachment from families often establishes a similar pattern
of detachment from other ingroups, such as employers, religious groups and civic organizations.(3)
In contrast, when children of collectivist societies exhibit individualist tendencies, those tendencies
frequently are discouraged. Compliance with group expectations and norms is praised. As a
consequence, many children of collectivist societies learn to conform and to identify closely with
their ingroups. As adults, they have strongly interdependent relationships with their families and
other ingroups.(4)

2. Demographic factors. Generally speaking, adults tend to become more
collectivist as they age, the affluent are more individualist than the poor, and women have more
collectivist tendencies than do men. Those whose occupations emphasize team work generally are
more collectivist in their working environments than those whose occupations emphasize individual
initiative and accomplishment. Education, travel and living abroad tend to expose people to diverse
ideas, thereby increasing their individualism.(5)

3. Context. Whether people behave as individualists or collectivists also depends
on context. For example, collectivists emphasize harmony and cooperation with members of their
ingroups. Because interdependence is not a factor when dealing with members of outgroups,
however, collectivists may adopt competitive attitudes toward them.(6) Similarly, in individualist
societies, adults may exhibit competitive traits in business and employment relationships but extend
deference and respect to their parents.(7)

D.Geographic distribution of individualists and collectivists

Every country contains both individualists and collectivists, but most countries have
a preponderance of one cultural type or the other. Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede’s survey of
cultural differences in over fifty countries found that individualists predominate in the United States,
Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, South Africa and most of the countries of Northern and
Western Europe.(8) Collectivists are predominant in most of the rest of the world.(9) Because examples
of both types may be found in every country, however, one must remember that generalizations
about the individualist or collectivist nature of a country are based on a statistical tendency that does
not apply to every person within its physical boundaries.(10)

II. Applications of Individualist and Collectivist Paradigms in the Mediation Context

A. Individualist nature of United States mediation models

The Hofstede study found the United States to be the most individualist country surveyed.(11)
It is not surprising, therefore, that mediation models in the United States are based on individualist
cultural assumptions about conflict and how it should be resolved.(12) Mediators in the United States
should become familiar with those assumptions and recognize the ways in which collectivists’
assumptions may differ. In some instances, mediators may find it necessary to adjust their models
in order to accommodate collectivists’ discomfort with certain of the models’ individualist aspects.

B.Participation of disputants in the mediation process

1. Contrasting views of the nature of conflict. Individualists tend to view
conflict as a natural part of human interaction. For example, one of the leading United States books
on conflict resolution systems design holds that “(d)isputes are inevitable when people with different
interests deal with each other regularly.”(13) In Getting to Yes, the classic text on principled
negotiation, the authors describe conflict as a “growth industry.”(14) The Texas author of an
authoritative mediation textbook notes that while conflict often has a negative connotation, in some
cases it can be positive, “an exciting and inspiring experience”(15), and it “is at the root of personal and
social change.”(16) Collectivists, on the other hand, tend to view conflict as an aberration, at least
where ingroup relationships are concerned. For example, a survey of Korean-Americans found that
the respondents viewed conflict as a “shameful inability to maintain harmonious relationships with
others.”(17) The Japanese, for their part, “abhor direct personal confrontation and, to avoid it, almost
always operate by consensus.”(18) Among collectivists, avoidance is a common, often preferred,
approach to conflict.(19)

2. Effect of perception of conflict on participation in mediation. Under most
circumstances in the United States, attendance at a mediation session is at least a tacit admission that
a dispute exists. Given their view of conflict as a natural phenomenon, individualists generally are
able to acknowledge conflict and participate in a mediation without experiencing shame.(20) For
collectivists, however, even a tacit acknowledgement of conflict could cause a loss of face,(21) and
participation in a typical mediation in the United States might be an unwelcome experience.
Collectivists might refuse to participate in voluntary mediation, and if mandatory, might resist orders
to mediate. If mediation is unavoidable, they might exhibit signs of anxiety and confusion during
the process. Collectivists’ resistance to mediation, as it is practiced in the United States, is likely to
be most pronounced when the other disputants are current or former ingroup members or persons
with whom the collectivists wish to maintain or re-establish relationships. Resistance to mediation
is likelly to be less intense when the other disputants are outgroup members or former ingroup
members with whom the collectivists no longer wish to maintain relationships. If mediators in the
United States detect resistance to participation in mediation from persons exhibiting collectivist
behavioral patterns, the mediators can offer modifications in their mediation formats. Some tactics
to encourage collectivists’ participation in the mediation process are described below.

C. Preferences and expectations about mediators.

1. Types of mediators preferred. Individualists tend to prefer professional
mediators who have specialized training in mediation procedures. In an individualist context, the
mediator usually is expected to be impartial, with no undisclosed relationship to any disputant.(22)
Among collectivists, there tends to be less of a concern about professional credentials and
impartiality, but more of a concern that the mediator be an insider, someone who knows the parties
or at least the context of their dispute.(23) In a mediation in the United States involving a collectivist,
the mediator rarely will know the disputants or have a thorough understanding of the collectivist’s
insider and outsider relationships. If it appears to the mediator that specialized knowledge of a
disputant’s social context would be useful, the mediator should consider referring the dispute to
another mediator who has the specialized knowledge or asking that mediator to serve as a co-mediator.

2. Expectations of mediators. In the United States, there seems to be less
consensus today than in the past about mediators’ proper roles. Traditional descriptions depict
mediators as facilitators of communication, negotiation and decision making.(24) Some mediators
argue, however, that their roles include the evaluation of the merits of disputants’ claims and the
proposal of resolutions.(25) Among collectivists, there is a tendency to prefer evaluative mediators
who are familiar with the context of the parties’ dispute and who can suggest resolutions that will
restore harmony both to the disputants and their relevant ingroups.(26) In order to avoid conflicting
expectations among mediators and disputants, mediators should disclose their perceptions of proper
mediator roles and attempt to ensure the disputants’ understanding of and agreement to those roles.
If agreement on such basic matters cannot be secured, it may be best to allow the disputants to find
another mediator or choose another dispute resolution process.

D. Participants in mediations.

Individualists tend to view the parties to a dispute as those who are directly involved in it.
As a result, they may consider a relatively small number of people to be the appropriate participants
in a mediation session.(27) Collectivists, on the other hand, may view members of their ingroup who
are not directly involved as parties to a dispute. As a consequence, collectivists may believe that a
relatively large number of people, or at least a respected member of an ingroup, should participate
in a mediation session.(28) Mediators in the United States, who often have an individualist perspective
of the relevant parties to a dispute, should avoid the automatic exclusion from their mediation
sessions of all persons who are not directly involved. Rather, they should ask the disputants to
identify those who are likely to attend the sessions and the reasons for each person’s attendance.
Careful inquiry could indicate that some participants, though not directly involved in the dispute,
are to be important advisors and participants in negotiation and decision making.

E. Formality and informality in mediation.

While a typical mediation in the United States takes place indoors and often in a formal
office setting, mediators tend to deal informally with the disputants, often calling them by their first
names.(29) In collectivist societies, on the other hand, outdoor and informal indoor mediation settings
are common, but the use of first names among strangers or persons of unequal status is not.(30)
Mediation, as practiced in the United States, certainly is less formal than litigation, but people from
collectivist societies may be intimidated by formal office settings. Collectivists also may insist upon
using titles when addressing mediators and other mediation participants, while expecting similar
manifestations of respect in return. Possible accommodations to collectivists could include informal
office settings, non-office mediation venues and the use of last names and appropriate titles for
everyone throughout the mediation session.

F. Face-to-face dealings vs. shuttle diplomacy.

Most mediations in the United States begin with the mediator and the disputants in the same
room, often seated at the same table. After the mediator explains the ground rules, the disputants
have the opportunity to explain the basis of the dispute to each other from their personal
perspectives. Direct communication among the disputants generally is considered appropriate, as
it provides each disputant with an opportunity to be heard and aids the mediator in the tasks of
interest identification and issue clarification. Sometimes, especially at the community mediation
level, disputants resolve their issues without a single private meeting between the mediator and one
of the parties.(31) On the other hand, collectivists who prefer conflict avoidance strategies may find
the direct approach of an initial joint session uncomfortable, or even a loss of face. In collectivist
societies, it is more common for a mediation to commence with private meetings between the
mediator and one party. The mediator acts as a shuttle diplomat carrying information and settlement
ideas from one party to the other. Once the general outline of an agreement is reached, the disputants
may agree to meet in order to negotiate the finer details.(32) In the United States, when a disputant
prone to collectivist behavior is involved in a mediation, the mediator may want to adopt a shuttle-diplomat approach to meetings between the parties.

G. Differences in negotiation patterns.

1. Individualist patterns. Mediation models in the United States are strongly
influenced by individualist negotiation patterns, which tend to be direct, linear and task-oriented.
In a typical mediation, an initial fact-gathering stage usually is followed by interest identification
and issue clarification. Next, the parties generate options. Individualists tend to be autonomous
decision makers. As such, they are more concerned with how an option affects them than with how
it affects others. In a successful mediation, issues are resolved, usually one at a time, and a
settlement is documented in a written agreement.(33)

2. Collectivist patterns. Among collectivists, negotiation styles tend to be
indirect, spiral and relationship-oriented. At the outset of a negotiation, considerable time may be
spent establishing a relationship of trust upon which further negotiation can be based. Interests
sometimes are expressed through the use of metaphors and body language and can be missed by
someone unfamiliar with the relevant cultural context. Issues often are seen as interrelated, thus
requiring a holistic approach to resolution. A holistic approach may lead to a spiral negotiation
technique whereby issues are resolved hypothetically or tentatively and later revisited to evaluate
the proposed resolutions’ compatibility with a comprehensive agreement. Resolution options are
considered not only on the basis of their effects on the disputants, but also in view of the likely
effects on ingroups, who may need to be consulted before a final agreement is reached. Collectivists
tend to be more interested in the restoration of overall harmony than in written agreements,
especially where ingroup relationships are concerned.(34)

3. Conflicting negotiation patterns in mediation. Individualist and collectivist
participants in mediation may misunderstand each others’ intentions and become frustrated with each
others’ negotiation styles. For example, individualists can misconstrue collectivists’ preference for
establishing trust before proceeding with negotiations as a delay tactic, while collectivists may
perceive individualists’ preference for “getting down to business” as rude and imprudent.
Collectivists may be offended by individualists’ frank and direct statement of demands during
negotiations, while individualists may miss subtle communication signals and become frustrated
with collectivists’ inability to “just say yes or no.” Individualists may accuse collectivists of “bad
faith” when collectivists attempt to “renegotiate” issues the individualists consider resolved but the
collectivists view as “under consideration” until the parties reach a comprehensive agreement.
Individualists who quickly evaluate options and decide upon a course of action may not understand
collectivists’ more deliberate, consensus-based approach to decision making. If individualists
attempt to rush a decision, collectivists may feel pressured to make an agreement without consulting
appropriate ingroup members. In each of these events, an effective mediator acts as a cultural bridge
between the participants by explaining to them the possible bases of their misunderstandings and
encouraging them to be patient with, and nonjudgmental of, each other.

III. Conclusion

Individualists and collectivists hold dramatically different views of themselves and their
proper relationships to others. As a consequence, their approaches to conflict resolution tend to
diverge in equally dramatic ways. Mediation models in the United States mirror the conflict
resolution preferences of individualists. When collectivists attempt to participate in such mediation
models, opportunities for misunderstanding and confusion abound. Effective mediators are aware
of the cultural assumptions upon which their mediation models are based and endeavor to adjust the
models in order to prevent contrasting individualist and collectivist paradigms from becoming
obstacles to agreement.


1. See Harry C. Triandis, Individualism and Collectivism 2, 12, 28, 34-35, 43-44 (1995); see also
Geert Hofstede, Culture and Organizations: Software of the Mind 50-51 (rev. ed. 1997). For a brief discussion
of individualism and individualists in the United States, see Edward C. Stewart & Milton J. Bennett, American
Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective 94-96, 110, 133-38, 142-47 (rev. ed. 1991).

2. See Triandis, supra note 1, at 2, 12, 28, 34-35, 43-44; see also, Hofstede, supra note 1, at 50-51;
Brishkai Lund et al., Conflict and Culture: Report of the Multiculturalism and Dispute Resolution Project
4 (1994). For a discussion of collectivism and collectivists in Japan, see Robert C. Christopher, The Japanese Mind 38-58
(1st Tuttle Co., Inc. ed. 1987).

3. See Triandis, supra note 1, at 9, 37, 63-66. Ingroups also can be based upon friendship, political party,
social class, education, race, tribe, caste and language. Id. at 9. “Ingroups are usually characterized by similarities among
the members, and individuals have a sense of ‘common fate’ with members of the ingroup.” Id. See also Stewart &
Bennett, supra note 1, at 133.

4. See Triandis, supra note 1, at 9, 37, 63-66; see, e.g., Christopher, supra note 2, at 61-76.

5. See Triandis, supra note 1, at 62-63, 66, 82-83, 86.

6. Id. at 9-10, 74-76, 126-28, 176-78. Outgroups are “groups with which one has something to divide,
perhaps unequally, or are harmful in some way, groups that disagree on valued attributes, or groups with which one is in
conflict.” Id. at 9.

7. Id. at 27.

8. See Hofstede, supra note 1, at 53. Greece and Portugal were the dominantly collectivist exceptions in
Western Europe.

9. Id. The countries surveyed and found to be predominantly collectivist, in varying degrees, were Argentina,
Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Indonesia, India,
Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Philippines,
Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates,
Uruguay, Venezuela, Yugoslavia and Zambia. Id.

10. See Triandis, supra note 1, at 5. The Amish in the United States and kibbutzim in Israel are examples
of collectivist groups found in countries whose inhabitants are mostly individualists. In China, a dominantly collectivist
country, there are people who advocate individualist ideals, such as free speech, at great personal risk. Id. at 87-89; see also
George Wehrfritz, Wei Jingsheng, Free at Last, Newsweek, November 24, 1997, at 42.

11. Hofstede, supra note 1, at 53. On an individualism scale of zero to one hundred, the United States
received the highest score, 91. Id.

12. See generally, John P. Lederach, The Mediator’s Cultural Assumptions, Conciliation Q. (Mennonite
Conciliation Svc., Akron, Pa.) Summer 1986 at 2-5, reprinted in Mediation and Facilitation Training Manual:
Foundations and Skills for Constructive Conflict Transformation 80 (Jim Stutzman & Carolyn Schrock-Shenk
eds., 3d ed. 1995); see also David W. Augsburger, Conflict Mediation Across Cultures: Pathways and Patterns
28-35 (1992).

13. William L. Ury et al., Getting Disputes Resolved: Designing Systems to Cut the Costs of
Conflict xii (1988).

14. Roger Fisher, et al., Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In xvii (2d ed.

15. Kimberlee K. Kovach, Mediation: Principles and Practice 2-3 (1994).

16. Id. See also Diane LeResche, Comparison of the American Mediation Process with a Korean-American
Harmony Restoration Process, 9 Mediation Q. 323, 326 (1992).

17. Diane LeResche, supra note 16, at 326.

18. Christopher, supra note 2, at 53.

19. See Triandis, supra note 1, at 77, 128, 160-61; Augsburger, supra note 12, at 94-96; LeResche, supra
note 16, at 326.

20. See, e.g., Augsburger, supra note 12, at 200-05; Stewart & Bennett, supra note 1, at 96-99;
Lederach, supra note 12, at 2-5.

21. See, e.g., Augsburger, supra note 12, at 200-05; Christopher, supra note 2, at 53-55; Lederach, supra
note 12, at 2-5.

22. See, e.g., State B. of Tex. ADR Sect., Ethical Guidelines for Mediators No. 4 (1994); Soc’y of
Prof. in Disp. Resol., Ethical Standards of Prof. Resp. No. 4 (1986); Augsburger, supra note 12, at 200-05; Lederach,
supra note 12, at 2-5.

23. Lund et al., supra note 2, at 6-7; Augsburger, supra note 12, at 200-05; Lederach, supra note 12, at
2-5. See, e.g., Jane Fishburne Collier, Law and Social Change in Zinacantan 169-265 (1973).

24. See, e.g., Kovach, supra note 15, at 28-29; Barbara Ashley Phillips, Finding Common Ground: A
Field Guide to Mediation 119 (1994); Melinda Smith & Scott Bradley, What is Mediation: A Perspective from Community
Mediation, NIDR News, Apr.-June 1997, at 8.

25. See, e.g., Charles Guittard, Muscle Mediation, Texas Lawyer, March 4, 1996 (Mediation Magazine),
at 24, 27-30. For a description of “advisory mediation,” see Phillips, supra note 24, at 119.

26. Lund et al., supra note 23, at 4-7; Augsburger, supra note 12, at 200-05; Lederach, supra note 12, at

27. See, e.g., Stewart & Bennett, supra note 1, at 62-69; Augsburger, supra note 12, at 200-05; Lederach,
supra note 12, at 2-5.

28. See, e.g., Augsburger, supra note 12, at 200-05; Stewart & Bennett, supra note 1, at 62-69;
Christopher, supra note 2, at 53-55; Lederach, supra note 12, at 2-5.

29. See Augsburger, supra note 12, at 200-05; Lederach, supra note 12, at 2-5. See also, Kovach, supra
note 15, at 23-27.

30. See Augsburger, supra note 12, at 200-05; Lederach, supra note 12, at 2-5.

31. See, e.g., Kovach, supra note 15, at 23-27; Phillips, supra note 24, at 145-154; Augsburger, supra note
12, at 200-05; Lederach, supra note 12, at 2-5.

32. Augsburger, supra note 12, at 94-102, 187-228; Lederach, supra note 12, at 2-5; see, e.g., Collier,
supra note 23, at 169-265.

33. See, e.g., Kovach, supra note 15, at 23-27; Phillips, supra note 24, at 145-154; Augsburger, supra note
12, at 200-05; Lederach, supra note 12, at 2-5.

34. Augsburger, supra note 12, at 94-102, 187-228; Lederach, supra note 12, at 2-5; see, e.g., Collier,
supra note 23, at 169-265.


Walter A. Wright

Walter A. Wright is a mediator based in Texas, USA. ------------------------------------------------------- Walter A. Wright es un Profesor de Derecho y Métodos Alternos de Resolución de Conflictos en Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas, EE. UU. Estudia, investiga, y escribe sobre la utilización de la mediación en los EE. UU. y… MORE >

Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


Mediation Marketing Resources April 2008

Mediation Marketing Resources is my periodic roundup of articles, tools and ideas that offer insights and support for your ADR marketing efforts. This month’s roundup gathers together articles on branding,...

By Tammy Lenski

Mediation and Access to Justice for All: The Case of Unrepresented Parties

Legal systems round the globe are grounded in the rule of law and in theory, justice is available readily and equally to all. In practice, however, access to justice is...

By Bongkiyi John Paul

Non-Directive Empathic Listening

In this paper I will share how I found out that the listening approach I have used for almost two decades was completely unique. It is based on a happy...

By Gregorio Billikopf

Find a Mediator