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Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands

In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French;
I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.

-Mark Twain

The chief virtue that language can have is clearness, and nothing detracts from it so much as the use of unfamiliar words.

I arrived early, as I’m inclined to do, for a mediation in Miami. I introduced myself to a young man who had arrived even earlier. I noticed he was frantically thumbing through a book. He identified himself as an interpreter whose presence was requested by plaintiff’s counsel to interpret for the latter’s client who, like his interpreter, was Haitian.

Although he was courteous, it was obvious he was searching for something before the proceeding began. His book turned out to be a Haitian/English dictionary, and he explained he was desperately trying to find a Haitian word for, of all things, MEDIATION! We worked through the dilemma through the use of numerous synonyms, and the mediation went off on schedule without a hitch. But you better believe I, too, had some anxious moments, wondering whether the interpretation would be adequate to the task.

In another instance, plaintiff’s counsel could not speak Spanish and his Cuban client could not speak English. (I won’t even go into the obvious question of how the two of them got as far as a mediation.) In a weird rearrangement of the deck chairs, defense counsel offered to translate for his opponent’s client, and opposing counsel promptly accepted. As a witness to this circus, I wondered whether we would even get through my opening statement. We did, and, surprisingly, the case eventually settled.

Language barrier or cultural diversity issue? Didn’t matter. These cases revealed a type of challenge often faced by mediators and attorneys in the South Florida area.

In the Haitian case, we may have had both a language and a cultural problem. (Why wasn’t there a word for mediation in his dictionary?) In the Cuban case, plaintiff’s counsel was embarrassingly unprepared to represent his client, and one had to wonder how the attorney/client retainer agreement was ever firmed up.

The language barriers are further compounded by the variety of dialects in many languages. Haitian, based on a French style Creole, has several dialects. Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans and folks from many South American countries often have difficulty communicating among themselves. Add to that the different forms of official corruption in many of these countries, which cause some claimants to be suspicious of all the participants in a mediation (“What do I have to pay the mediator to rule in my favor?”), and you face an educational task way beyond the bounds of mediation.

I was born in Germany, and, while I was too young to appreciate the obstacles posed, my cousins in that country have informed me that Northern Germans and Southern Germans have great difficulty communicating with each other. Now that I think of it, we may have a counterpart in this country, when the Snowbirds come south and try to converse with the local crackers!

And, if you’re ever in Brazil, avoid using the that’s-perfect signal of the encircled thumb and index finger. Those poor uninformed folks see it as the equivalent of our upward projection of the middle finger! Go figure.

The solution? Not an easy one-or two or three. The title of this little piece is not original. It is taken from the title of a book authored by Terri Morrison who offers a study of the differing cultures of sixty countries. I commend it to your attention.

Attorney Maggie Lamorte had an excellent presentation at the recent Florida Academy of Professional Mediators conference in Orlando on the subject of cultural diversity issues in the mediation process. Among other enlightening suggestions, she suggested selecting a co-mediator of like background with the culturally diverse party.

I understand the Florida Legislature is considering requiring certification of interpreters. I’m not sure this would cover all the nuances of cultural and language diversities, but it would make an excellent start.

Unfortunately, the subject matter of this editorial demands considerably more space than is allowed for these short pieces. Maybe we’ll pick up where we left off at some future date, perhaps with some of your personal experiences.

“Kiss, bow or shake hands.” Makes a difference whether you’re in France, Japan or the good ole USA!


Edward P. Ahrens

Ed Ahrens has been a member of the Florida Bar for over 43 years. He is a certified state and federal court mediator in Tampa, Florida. He is also a freelance writer and former president of National Writers Association, South Florida Chapter. He is the author of the popular book,… MORE >

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