There was an interesting exchange among some international mediators recently about the culture of negotiation in south-east Asia and how, as a mediator, one copes with different cultures. It occurred to me that we need to be careful not to see culture as merely a geographical, religious or national feature. If I travel to Glasgow from Edinburgh (40 miles) (or vice versa), I may encounter cultures apparently very different to my own, language very different from what I am accustomed to (and perhaps impenetrable), social mores which a part of me may not fully understand and attitudes which might be very different to mine. Indeed, if I travel 3 miles from my home here in Edinburgh, I may encounter people from different backgrounds, living in a drug-centred hopelessness which I can never truly understand.
Culture pervades all that we do. When I travelled recently to the Middle East to mediate in a commercial matter, I read books about the culture. They were helpful. I should perhaps do the same for those just a few miles away. But the reality in the Middle East, as a few miles away, was this – we all had much more in common than that which separated us. Indeed, I called a meeting of all 25 participants early on day two and talked about “Jock Tamson’s Bairns”, the notion that we are all children of the same everyman/woman/god – John Thomson being such a figure in Scottish folklore, and his “bairns” being his children, all of us. So often, we focus on difference when we could/should acknowledge commonality and mutuality.
And when differences are present, as they always will be, questions can help:
• How does this work in your community?
• What should I be sensitive to?
• How might your approach differ from mine? Theirs?
• What is causing you (or them) to react/behave in this way?
• What is reality for you?
• What lies beneath?
Somewhat related, I am reading a brilliant book by Richard Sennett, entitled Together – The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. In the last chapter, he talks about Montaigne’s cat: “When I am playing with my cat, how do I know he/she is not playing with me?” A good question … and Montaigne lived from 1533-1592. Plus ca change…….