From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate
Image credit: Martin Bangemann – Fotolia.com
Stephanie West Allen recently posted an informative article at Brains on Purpose on neuroscience research about the ways in which brains of people in different cultures function in distinctive ways. References to her own earlier posts, especially What’s Universal in Mediation, as well as the work of Geert Hofstede on cultural difference are well worth exploring.
Her post has set me thinking about a general problem I’ve often run into. Stephanie is well aware of this issue, and I want to say immediately that I’m not talking about her post. She is one of the pioneers in educating lawyers and mediators about cross-cultural issues and knows better than most of us how complicated the issues are.
It’s a given that cultural differences must be understood and respected to achieve effective communication. Those differences concern basic values and beliefs that shape worldviews and guide choices for action in all walks of life. When values at this level differ in fundamental ways, misunderstanding of motives and interests is common, and clashes between groups become more likely and resolution more difficult.
But it is possible to exaggerate the effect of those differences on the process of reaching agreement itself. When culturally distinct groups see themselves in conflict, that perception often has a history of adversarial relationships behind it, tensions about interests that are considered incompatible by both sides, or even overt political domination of one group by another. Any conflict interweaves a complex set of influences.
When it comes to conflict resolution, I think of cultural differences as the most significant barrier to communication and hence to initiating any effective effort of the groups to come together for the purpose of resolving problems. Isolating the influence of culture on conflict as negotiation as a whole may be necessary to help one group learn about the unfamiliar values and ways of thinking of another. That process of study, however, can create an impression that cultural characteristics are more fixed and resistant to change that they actually are.
For educational purposes, separate dimensions and categories are useful to explain the nature of cultural differences – dimensions like a sense of time, the degree of individuality, expectations about authority, forms of social interaction, and the like. Unfortunately, this sort of study has led to overemphasis on composite and artificial concepts such as the Arab mind, the Native American worldview or any number of simplifications that sweep together numerous localized cultures and traditions into a single, “typical” cultural character.
In reality, no culture has survived over centuries without extensive change born of the necessity to adapt to new circumstances – such as new political realities, natural environmental changes, migration, influences of other cultures or the availability of new technologies.
A willingness to get together with representatives of a different culture to resolve conflict is also a willingness to consider adaptation to change. Rigid cultures resist change and are unlikely to show that degree of openness. Read more »
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