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Understanding Culture in Mediation

This article is co-authored by Dr. Ralph Steele Esquire, Sheila Younger-Halliman Esquire, and Avia Rice Gauthier Esquire

Culture is the sum total of our birth life and continuous environment.  Every person has at least three (3) distinct DNA cultural ties that they are born with.  There is no pure race or culture; culture is truly a human phenomenon.  The problem is some people aren’t cognizant of or don’t understand their own culture.  Therefore they struggle with understanding someone else’s culture. 

The next level questions concerning cultures are:  What are basic qualities to all cultures universally; What makes us universally the same; What makes us all special to other cultures; What are all of our common core traits; and, How do we recognize and celebrate the nuances of our sameness.  Our sameness in cultures is a clue to our national cultured connection.  Our cultural sameness is impetuous to communicate and network with each other.  It also lays the groundwork for productive mediations and negotiations that arise, and helps limit problems that arise not only from a business or personal dispute but also due to the unwillingness to acknowledge cultural differences.  There’s always something that each culture has in common.

It should also be noted there is more to diversity than cultural sensitivity but there is also cultural awareness and cultural understanding. Cultural sensitivity occurs when a person has knowledge about a cultural differences but never inserts judgment or determination rather, they remain objective.  There is also cultural awareness, which occurs when a person elects to move far beyond sensitivity and into the realm of acceptance, appreciation or involvement.  Although sensitivity and awareness are of importance, neither would be possible without knowledge. Cultural knowledge occurs when a person open chooses to learn more about norms, values and customs of a particular diverse group.

Too many people overlook the obvious sameness in culture; we all have many similarities transcending cultural customs.  One example of the sameness in culture is taken from Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”.  All of us require oxygen, food, safety, security and the need to love and be loved.  Also, all of us have a need to achieve at some level.  According to Robert Cialdini author of the book “Influence” all human beings need to be liked and thought of, respected and revered by persons of high character.  Our ability to be cared for has value in society.  Only when we understand the sameness of cultures can we begin to understand the differences.  As we begin to understand the differences then we start the path of understanding culture on a deeper level regardless of whose it is.  Sharing a deeper understand understanding of culture leads us closer to true diversity and peace.  The deeper level of culture affords connectivity to people’s lives and mutual sensitivity each culture offers, while fostering curiosity. 


With this being said adhering to some cultural customs is deemed offensive, lest we must do our research on how different cultural norms are perceived in some countries.   In some countries it is offensive to bow, show the bottom of your feet, give public praises or use certain hand gestures, although they might mean something in other cultures.  We must apply the research used to understand other cultures for good, as our first impression is in most cases our most important impression.  Not only must we make an effort to learn others cultural customs, but we must not compromise our culture as both cultures learn and exploring each other lead to better understandings

We cannot have true diversity and mutual agreement without the peace of civility.  It’s like a disruptive child in school a teacher cannot teach the child without peaceful discipline.  Likewise, we cannot have true cultural diversity on any level without the stability that civility brings.  In fact, Mary Worley explains it best when she said that “Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.” Whether spoken or unspoken, a lack of civility present during a mediation, can be an early indicator that resolve will not occur or it may force the parties farther apart.  

Negotiations in mediation can best be arranged by the quality and impact of good communication.  Therefore the quality a communicator in mediating with different cultures greatly depends on good communication and quality civility.  The level of civility helps bridge the differences of culture.  Disregarding cultural differences and more significantly failing to connect culturally could bring about missed opportunities.  Cultural differences are simply cultural opportunities.  While culture undoubtedly shapes the way we view conflict, it can also impact how we seek justice or resolve.  A cultural difference in mediation is the ultimate plan and journey to mediation success.  The same should apply in society; cultural differences should become an elevator to the highest level of human civility and decency.

Cultural civility in mediation or society is a global phenomenon.  All mediations universally should be striving for the greater good of global civility in both.  As you have 10 people in mediation including the mediator now you have a minimum of (40) different cultures in one group.  Remember the cultural formula (#people=3 cultures and 1 societal culture=(4) distinct cultures times (10)=40 cultures.   There’s a plethora of information and knowledge we gain by observing cultural connections.  Mediations and negotiations can flow much smoother when the parties embrace varying culture norms.  There cultural norms are nothing to fear or fight in the midst of the process. When we manage culture our beginning is our end; the right education, information about ones and others culture. 


Cialdini, R. B. (2007). Influence: the psychology of persuasion. New York, Collins

“Hierarchy of Needs.” Abraham Maslow – Father of Modern Management Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.


Ralph Steele

Dr. Ralph Steele has various experience in mediation over 600 hours of mediation since 1992. In 1992 he wrote a book on School Conflict Resolution Mediation Program, and conducted peer mediation and peer mediation training. He has done workplace mediation in the employment sector, and family mediation, probate, civil and… MORE >

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