This morning was one of those March Southern California mornings where it is beginning to get warm and you realize it is practically spring already. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and even though it was just after 8:00, it was already warm enough to roll down the windows. As I rounded the corner off of my street, I saw a guy about my age running. He was wearing running shorts and had a long sleeve shirt tied around his waist, but was shirtless. He also had a visor, sunglasses, and earbuds—obviously rocking out on his morning run.

As he and I rounded the corner in opposite directions, I saw him cross paths with a woman pushing a stroller and holding one very small child’s hand. She was dressed in dark colors, and was wearing a burqa (muslim head-scarf). She appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. When the runner crossed her path, it appeared to me they were both embarrassed. I was close enough to see their interaction—he made eye contact and she looked down.

“What just happened?” I thought to myself. It was clear neither of these individuals were comfortable after this interchange, and I began to wonder, “why?” I wondered if either of them felt they had done something wrong. I thought to myself how I have seen plenty of shirtless guys (sometimes even in stores in rural areas) and they certainly didn’t seem embarrassed or uncomfortable in any way.

I kept thinking about this observation all day, and when I got home from work this is what I came up with: Culture and Context.

The reason both of these individuals looked embarrassed was twofold: culture and context. This short article sets out to explore this in more depth.

Throughout the day, I couldn’t help but think back to the class in my Dispute Resolution LL.M. program entitled “Cross-Cultural Conflict.” In addition to learning that cultures are to some degree quantifiably different in various regards, we discussed many different ways culture can effect interactions or conflict between any two people. We also discussed the idea that context plays a large part in determining and defining culture, and is central to cross-cultural interactions. This cross-cultural observation really drove home just how applicable this is.

I. Culture
In the modern day, it should surprise no one that there are many cultures, and that those cultures often have marked differences. It is not the purpose of or necessary for this article to attempt to catalog the various world cultures and how they might interact with one another. It is enough to acknowledge there are many, and they are different.

But how does this apply? To give an example, suppose the shirtless runner rounded the corner and passed another shirtless runner, that was dressed just like him. Would he have been uncomfortable? Or if the mother rounded the corner to confront another mother wearing a head-scarf, would she have been uncomfortable? Doubtful. When confronted with one’s own culture, there is nothing unknown or different, and nothing to make one uncomfortable. It is when confronted with someone else’s culture, their values, and what is “normal” to them that one might be made uncomfortable.

This particular example is illustrative because it involves a direct conflict of a rather basic value of each party—the runner likely values feeling the sun on his back and the freedom of running shirtless, whereas the mother likely has more conservative values and believes it to be inappropriate to run down the street “half-naked.” A member of either culture will agree with that culture’s position to some degree, so what happens when these two value systems come into direct contact? Confrontation, and although not in this instance, quite possibly conflict.

II. Context
The extent to which two culture’s value systems clash seems to be governed in large part by the context in which the two systems meet. By way of comparison to the above, what if these individuals had crossed paths on the beach, along the water right where the surf breaks? It seems to me the runner almost certainly would have felt much less awkward because his behavior would have aligned with the context almost perfectly. The woman may have still felt awkward, but presuming she has been to the beaches in California before, she at least would have expected to see shirtless people.

On the other hand, what if these two had met in the middle of a predominately Muslim country? Or to go further, inside a mosque? In that case, I think most would agree the runner would have been completely uncomfortable, and I dare say, inappropriate.

III. Applying This to Mediation
So, this observation solidified for me the importance of considering context in mediation. It is my perspective that a mediator always needs to be keenly aware of the context he or she is creating in a mediation. Oftentimes there is some degree of cultural difference between parties to a mediation. Whether this is directly recognized or addressed, it will often have some impact on the parties, and they will react to the context the mediator creates.

To apply this to a cross-cultural mediation, the question becomes, “Do I, as the mediator, want to set the context of the mediation between the shirtless runner and the Muslim woman at the beach? In a mosque? Or some other place?” This is of course merely figurative, but hopefully it illustrates the point. Personally, if I were mediating, I would aim for somewhere in the middle of the parties divergent cultural norms, so that each person is approximately equally uncomfortable.

In closing, it was amazing how much I could learn about mediation by simply driving to work!


This has been essentially the life work of Geert Hofstede, which can be found at: www.geert-hofstede.com.
It is interesting to note in this context what is “inappropriate” is nothing more than a culture’s determination of what is “appropriate” in various contexts.
In fact, over 75% of the mediations conducted or attended by this writer in Los Angeles have involved parties from different cultures than their opponents.

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