On 16 September 2009, Antoine Adeline and Christian Hausmann organised a "breakfast debate" to discuss the topic of "Intercultural Mediation". The following text is a summary of the rich debate that ensued.
Folowing the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, when fuelled discussion on national but also european identity and political issues surrounding multiculturalism and civilisations, this topic is clearly a very current one.
Put rather simply : the current world is characterised by a growing "transculturalness" : globalisation, Internet, modern methods of communication, each of these help to develop contacts, cross breeding, mixing, but also friction, rejection and sometimes conflict between cultures and civilisations.
Intercultural mediation is a diverse concept, mixing the theories of communication, psychology, anthropology, linguistics and culture : in short, an interdisciplinary minefield !
We should be wary of certain pitfalls, namely ethnocentricism and not overstating the virtues of communication and dialogue. When asked "What do you think of the Chinese ?" Paul Claudel responded facetiously "I don’t know them all". According to Cocteau, "Words were invented to hide one’s thoughts".
After clarifying the relevant terminology, we tried to isolate the specific constraints surrounding intercultural mediation and considered responses and practical solutions.
1. What are we talking about ?
"Intercultural Mediation" and "Transnational Mediation"
Strictly speaking, this is the act of establishing social links between people from different cultures (for the first term) or between persons who do not live in the same territory (for the second term).
"Culture" (one definition of many)
" All of the variables which determine past or future behaviour, which the individual acquires and exhibits by way of symbols, and which makes up a distinctive symbol of a human group. The essential part of culture is the traditional ideas and particularly, the values attached to these ideas. " (Serge Roy)
"Whatever is implicitly or explicitly desirable for an individual or group, and which influences the choice of method, way and aim of the action. " (Serge Roy)
2. The social link
Beyond language, literature, art, music, history, traditions, moral values, patriotism and folklore, numerous variables should be taken into account :
• Perception of time, space, objects, colours, etc.
• The concept of ‘self’ and others (allocation of male-female roles, age classes, attitudes, work relationships, management, leadership etc)
• Way of thinking, beliefs, religions
• Body language (gesture, silence, smile/laughter, eye contact etc)
3. The individual (beliefs, innermost thoughts, psyche, etc.)
Every individual has his own character, with his own values, moral belief system and way of thinking.
Numerous values/variables may interact and/or may conflict : individualism vs collectivism, need for social recognition or not, looking for safety or not, need for rules and structures (avoiding uncertainty), whether in a position of power or not or part of a hierarchy etc.
II. MEDIATION IN AN INTERCULTURAL CONTEXT
1. The mediator must bridge the gap between cultures
a. Spoken word, language and communication
The spoken word is the tool and basis for mediation. To retain the true value of words spoken (or silence), the mediator should not act as a third voice.
In intercultural mediation, nuances, clarity, doubts, silence and empathy have far more importance than in traditional mediation.
Communication and negotiation behaviour varies between cultures : i.e. the use of "No" instead of "Maybe", bluffing, humour, irony, eye contact (very impolite in Japan), interrupting, physical contact etc. The importance of the spoken word and silence varies (e.g. silence is rare in Brazil but frequent and acceptable in Japan).
The choice of language is also a determining factor. Must English be, in default of another language, the international language for an intercultural mediation ? Is a multilingual mediation preferable and/or viable ? If a common language is used in mediation (e.g. English) should the mediator meet with the parties separately in their own maternal language ?
b. Specific ability to manage intercultural mediations ?
Translation, decoding, deciphering are essential in intercultural mediation but slow a mediator and divert his attention from his principal duty of bridging the gap, facilitating negotiations and settlement. There are often issues regarding reasoning and stereotyping, frustrations, withdrawal or acquiescence as a result of misunderstandings or errors in interpretation.
"Exotism" is not necessarily far away in international mediation (the English, who are often difficult to decipher, are they the Chinese or Persians of Europe ?!) and there may be different socio-cultural or intergenerational groups, not forgetting discrimination, whether hidden or not.
In an intercultural mediation, the obvious trump cards are experience, multilinguism, ability to communicate, emotional strength, cultural sensitivity, an open mind, polycentrism etc.
Logic and preparation are also of fundamental importance. It is essential for a mediator to research each culture and the parties’ values if he is not familiar with them. Two extreme examples : the Dupond wear local costume to travel abroad incognito and Talleyrand, who organises festivals and catering, is accompanied by his chef to a mediation.
Further, there should be a clear explanation of the rules of the game and a cards on the table approach, to create empathy, open doors and avoid frustration later on.
2. The parties and their advisors
The presence of advisors only complicates the situation further (ethical problems, applicable law, legal cultures etc).
The parties must be even better prepared than usual i.e. to listen, reinforced empathy, foresee the unforeseeable.
Throughout the various exchanges with the participants in this debate, a number of questions arose, notably :
• Should there be a specific training programme for intercultural mediation ?
• Should mediation centres put in place a panel of specialists for intercultural mediation ?
•Can mediation between parties who are unable to communicate in each other’s language or speak a universal language like English ever be managed effectively ?
On a final humorous note : Oscar Wilde claimed that he lived "in fear of not being misunderstood" !