But What about Me? (Part 2) Sally Campbell
When I took my initial training as a mediator in 1986, I had no idea how culture-blind I was.
I swam obliviously in the waters of my post-sixties women’s lib, white-privileged, western individualistic, Eurocentric, middle class, “But what about me?” universe. Born and raised in Vancouver, I knew nothing of the indigenous cultures all around me. I had so much to learn. I was, as they say, overdeveloped on the outside and underdeveloped on the inside.
Thankfully, mediation is a great and humbling teacher. So is working with indigenous communities and faith communities like Ismaili Muslim. So is a gifted T’ai Chi Ch’uan teacher like the late Doreen Hynd. So is therapy. And the writers, the poets, voices of the heart and soul – on loss, grief, inequality, racism. I especially enjoy reading and learning from those with different backgrounds from my own. Conflict is a terrific lens because it’s a hard human experience, a universal one, and one of life’s most powerful teachers. As tough as it is, we need to ask what it is teaching us right now. And take the learning!
At a very deep level, our values drive how we respond in conflict situations. Yet they are something we rarely examine or even question. Interestingly, people world-wide share most of the same values, but they play out in distinctly differing ways.
What seems logical, sensible, important and reasonable to a person in one culture may seem irrational and unimportant to one of another culture. Stella Ting-Toomey* has written a great deal about culture. She says that when people talk about other cultures, they tend to describe the differences and not the similarities. And that differences between cultures are often seen as threatening, so they’re described in negative terms. And yet it is very valuable to understand the differences, to look into them, and see where these judgments lie, particularly our own. For instance, the more ego-centred life style of individualists is considered utterly selfish and immature by more collectivist orientations, while the group allegiance valued in collectivist cultures is considered by individualists to be sheep-like adherence, blind conformity to the dictates of the group.
Freedom – a highly valued and vaunted aspect of western culture, is a not a value you hear expressed by most of the world’s population. (No one likes the idea of incarceration. Ironically, the freedom-loving US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.) Maintaining harmony and belonging are much more highly valued in a collectivist worldview. My freedom is only as important as the freedom of my entire group in collectivist perspective.
As well, with collectivism, separate interests are inextricably tied to the interests of the group. I experienced this orientation when working in the Northwest Territories, as a facilitator with the 7 indigenous nations of that region. It was a 3 day gathering exploring impacts and benefits of a proposed gas pipeline. When asking representatives of their respective nations to identify their own specific interests (what mattered to them), they never once separated out their interests as individuals from those of their group; the idea itself was foreign to them. I remember thinking how utterly different a response this was from that of folks at a negotiating table of non-indigenous people. They would speak of the interests of those they represented and also from their own perspective, without hesitation. Sometimes the latter would come first.
These ideas are intended not to stereotype people but rather to provide a general framework for understanding deeply-rooted ways of being.
Here’s a few more ways these cultural value frameworks play out:
1. Individualism emphasizes personal goals; collectivism, in-group goals.
2. Individualism expects horizontal relational primacy (loyalty to spouse or partner); collective worldviews expect vertical relational primacy (obedience and respect for elders, and for those in authority).
3. Individualism anticipates competition in conflict; collectivism expects avoidance of conflict.
4. Individualism values free & frank disclosure and expects personal face-saving; collectivism teaches mutual and other face-saving.
5. Individualism has a resolution focus (“get the job done”); collectivism has a harmony focus
(build relationship first).
6. Individualism values enforcement of legal rights (self-face-saving); collectivism values forbearance and non-interference (mutual- and other-face saving).
7. Individualism seeks formalized agreement (task focus); collectivism offers ceremonial closure (relationship focus).
It’s worth remembering that we all show aspects of individualism and collectivism in differing contexts. Nonetheless, we have each been taught certain values by the primary culture in which we were raised, and these values run deep.
*Many of these ideas are from Ting-Toomey & John Oetzel’s scholarly book: Managing Intercultural Conflict Effectively. Sage Publications: California, 2001.