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  • Geraldine Waxman, ESQ.

The Challenge of Different Cultures and the Mediator


When parties from different cultures come to the mediation table negotiations may be particularly challenging. Cultural misunderstandings can result in both sides either being angered for no reason or confused by the other party as well as the process. What then can the mediator do to avoid having to terminate a mediation?


Here is a brief example: A shipment of goods arrives with 50 percent damaged goods. The “Westerner” pays for less than half assuming that she has, based on lost business paid the proper percent and therefore is in the “right”. The Chinese seller who knows that fifty percent was not damaged has asked for Mediation. Throughout, the “Westerner” based on lost business, pushes for agreement and throughout, the Chinese seller is commenting “yes” while eyes are averted and the head is down. The Mediator drafts an agreement. Everyone is stunned when the Agreement is refused by the Chinese seller. Simply put, the Chinese seller was only being polite and not agreeing to anything.


Would it not have assisted all parties had the Mediator been aware of the “culture” of politeness that had one side just nodding to be polite versus nodding assent? This example is not to say that every Mediator must now become a student of culture and/or of history. But it does show that every Mediator must be or become aware that different cultures do different things differently and it is clearly in the best interests of all to clarify, define and be aware of the nuances of negotiation by different cultures.

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