Trust is a key factor between clients and their mediator and cultural norms need to be understood in order to build this trust. Culture gives us norms of behavior which, in turn, affects how we judge and interact with people and this affects the building of this trust. We all have biases and ways that we personally view situations which are based on our backgrounds and our cultures. These are called implicit biases. They’re not biases we are generally aware of, without study, but they come into play. For instance, when we, as divorce mediators, handle a divorce, prenuptial agreement, or postnuptial agreement, cultural differences can and do obstruct communication and trust between the mediator and the client.
Creating trust is critical to empower clients, make them feel comfortable, honest, and able to share accurate information. This is critical to representing any client as an attorney, especially an attorney tasked with facilitating and resolving a divorce. Below are three examples where understanding culture and being culturally competent can have a positive effect in a mediation.
- In some cultures, averting your eyes is a sign of respect. Depending on who’s observing this, someone from one culture may say, “That person is not telling the truth.” Yet somebody from a different culture might have the exact reverse impression and feel that the person is actually being respectful and/or trustworthy. In our American culture, we take looking people in the eye as an indication of honesty, but in other cultures, it is a sign of rudeness and aggressiveness.
- Many cultures frown on using your left hand to hand things to people. It is seen as disrespectful because the left hand is considered dirty in those cultures. If I, the attorney, am dealing with a couple that is already in emotional turmoil and I hand them things with my left hand, they’re not going to be happy.
- In developing custody and parenting time plans with diverse clients, it’s often problematic to simply apply the family structure usually seen in the Western world. Many cultures share child-rearing responsibilities with extended family members like aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents, etc., some of whom live in the same household. It’s important to be culturally sensitive to the roles that these extended family members play in child rearing — and to not assume that it’s only going to be just mom and dad.
Throughout my career I’ve made it a goal to be aware of cultural differences, personality differences, and emotional differences. That requires education and conscious attention to the communication process and family structures in dealing with different nationalities or religions. This avoids potential subcultural pitfalls as seen in the examples above, and helps to understand red flags, like when a client is angry, actively uncomfortable, or where there is domestic violence and no one is talking about it.
To find out more about how softer skills like these can help facilitate your divorce, or if you feel this awareness will help you, contact me.