Trappings typical of an East-end neighbour conflict.

The people

The mediators: Two men in their mid-thirties, one of Morrocan descent, one Australian. The parties: A middle-aged first or second generation Bangladeshi woman, married with three kids living next door to a recently single white English born mother (mid/late twenties) of a 1 year old daughter. So a lot of cultural differnce, but I am going to foucs on the two party’s very different styles of communication.

The young woman desired and was able to communicate directly with her neighbour. This was evident from the beginning and actually part of the conflict: The council had told her not to have ANY communication with her neighbour while the dispute was still officially being dealt with.  This included the mediation process, so there was already there was a bit of resentment toward the mediation service as some other hoop she had to jump through. She had stated in her intention that she did not think the conflict was that big a deal and she was willing to apologise from the very beginning of the meeting.

They both claimed that it was not a “cultural” thing (there is a lot of fear about being seen as racist/prejudice = stupid/criminal) But in actual fact it was very much a “cultural thing.” The Asian woman wanted to address the two (male) mediators directly but did not seek much direct contact with her neighbour. We even pointed this out, (admittedly, we also sided with the mediation culture expectation that the two parties should be addressing each other – It is after all their conflict, not ours!)  So in this case, the Bangladeshi woman’s communication preference was marginalised.

Second, the Bangladeshi woman was late to what was already a very short meeting; and the mediation service/mediators have to accept responsibility for this. The Bangladeshi woman had called a number of times asking for directions and explaining she was going to be late. The young woman had come on time and had specifically requested 3:45, not 3:30 or 4:00pm and was here at that time. And it could be argued that as a speaker with English as a first language, she could find the place more easily.

One of the ways oppression works it so limit movement, either overtly or as a result of the public domain being tailored by and for the dominant culture. Therefore the English speaker faces less racism and marginalisation because of her colour and nationality.

The next cultural difference was in the expression of emotion. Both cultures have edges to big expressions of emotion, with different rules for different spaces. For example, football matches allow different behaviours than do golf games, just as neighbours have different expectations on behaviours than the families contained within the homes. Not having grown up in Bangaldeshi cultures, I do not know much about the social and behavioural norms of domestic settings, particularly with regard to expression of emotion. However it was clear in this setting that the display of emotions of any kind was seen as extra-ordinary. This is also an English norm. However, watching the older woman’s reluctance to speak about her being late changed when we shared a moment aapart from the other party.   In the break, she began to well up and started to cry.  She was upset but we were never certain why, perhaps she was apologetic, angry or guilty?) This happened only momentarily and she quickly forced “composure” when the other woman returned. This was not just for her benefit but also an attempt at “keeping up appearances” that she assumed were required in this setting.

I imagine as an outsider, there are compelling reasons to show that you do not reveal the effort, difficulty or struggle that it may take to be seen as British, even if it means not showing a lack of understanding; a difficulty at navigating an area; or a difference of opinion about parenting. Judging by her tears in the break, she was struggling a lot more than she wanted to talk about, and quickly dismissed any suffering.

As the mediation continued, we began to become concerned as to whether the Bangladeshi woman was actually understanding what was being said: everything was spoken in English which was not her first language. This was further compounding of the cultural difference that we were not meant to be discussing!