Americans often get blamed for being culturally insensitive. This seems a bit odd to me because America has more different ethnic groups than almost any other country in the world. But it can be true as well. Here’s why: culture can be more than just ethnic groups. There are cultures of states, regions, towns and even streets regardless of ethnicity. These cultures are passed down by former residents and may stretch back decades. Differences abound in language use (Ya, sure), foods (Cincinnati chili), entertainment (flea markets) and sports (Jai alai). There are even cultures within families as some topics and behavior may be considered taboo by some but embraced by others (hugging for example, sorry for the pun). You can run into immutable cultural traits anywhere.
So it is that a mediator needs always to be on the alert for differences in how parties in mediation behave. Questions should always be in the back of the mediator’s mind. Are the differences cultural, or personality based? Are differences real (based on understanding) or imaginary (based on misunderstanding)? One of the greatest mistakes a mediator can make is to assume a difference is due to one cause when it is actually due to another, seeming to be based on ethnicity, for example, when it may simply be a personality trait.
The basis of a difference can impact a mediation because it impacts how you as mediator deal with that difference: people’s attitudes can be flexible or immovable depending on how ingrained they are in the person. A cultural trait may be deeply ingrained in a native of that culture while remaining flexible in a recent immigrant. A family trait lasting for generations may have its basis in genetic makeup (need for personal space, for example). All these things need to be kept in mind when mediating because in many respects ultimately every individual is a composite of many trait and thus a unique culture, a culture of one.