The follow-up to the IMI’s posting of draft criteria on intercultural competence in mediation has been generous and insightful – and no doubt much of what has been suggested will make its way into modifications of the criteria.
But even without an awareness of the theories about cultural difference, there are those who come up with disarmingly simple guides to good practice. Here’s an example. A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in my hairdresser’s chair, getting the usual trim, and of course all around were people who couldn’t be separated from their mobile phones (it’s also interesting to observe, on a Saturday morning, the number of Chinese gentlemen of a certain age who are getting the grey covered up – which explains why I’ve seen so few men with silver hair, except for those to whom it lends the right degree of gravitas). Anyway, one gentleman – I assume a real estate agent from the anything-but-private phone call – asked his interlocutor one very simple and gracious question: “How may I address you?”
This is relevant in light of IMI criteria dealing with understanding hierarchies, power distance and so on. It’s also relevant to the concern raised by my students going to Paris for the ICC’s mediation competition, that it seemed to them that people were using first names in mediation sessions, and this is not something they’d comfortably do. In the event, there was a mixed bag of strategies from mediators, despite what I understood to have been their briefing, and most assumed that the mediation norm would be the informal style. One or two indicated that mediation was typically informal but gave participants – students from a wide range of countries – a choice of forms of address. But in the context of a competition like this , there remained a degree of uncertainty and asymmetry in forms of address.
So, the question by the real estate agent is as good as it gets. And far more nuanced, for example, than the uninvited convention in cold-calling salespeople in New Zealand, who assume from the outset that first names can and will be used. And in terms of the criteria for intercultural competence, this is just a simple practice of inquiry about the other person’s preferences.