Cultural Sensitivity


A long-haired Japanese star just led me to a discovery.

The other day, I consulted with two new clients, a husband and wife. They met with me together on Zoom to discuss which process would work best for their divorce. Ultimately, they chose mediation, thinking that they had already worked out most of the kinks.

As they had no children, it appeared at first blush that the house would be the primary issue. And then… the star appeared.

Towards the end of our consultation, it suddenly became clear that of equal importance would be how they would handle time sharing with their border collie when they no longer lived together. They were happy to introduce me to her on the link, a beautiful seven-year-old named Hoshi, which I happen to know is the word for “Star” in Japanese. (It turned out that Jose was a bit of a Japanophile, a predilection he and my husband share. And my dog, the shining star of my life, is named Mochi, which is the word for a Japanese dessert, white rice paste on the outside and pink guava paste inside. Indeed, Mochi, who was named by one of my Korean clients with whom I have become quite close, has white hair and baby pink skin underneath.)

So, we really connected.

My Faux Pas

They both speak perfect English, although slightly accented with a Hispanic undertone, so I gave no thought to the retainer agreement I sent, using their given names and their surnames as they appeared in their email addresses.

Louisa quickly corrected me:

It was lovely speaking with you earlier and thanks so much for getting back to us. The mediation agreement needs to be updated for our legal names (I kept my maiden name):

  • Louisa Maria Vazquez Domingo
  • Jose Hernandez Maldonado

Well, I admit I was embarrassed. I thought I was smart and sensitive to such things. I believed that I was culturally_competent. Furthermore, I’m sure I felt somewhat superior (not exactly sure to whom, but still…). I am blond-haired (originally; probably not anymore but “only my hairdresser knows for sure”) and green-eyed. My last name is Jenkins. So I really enjoy the reaction of people when they discover that I’m Jewish, usually by being caught in a moment of cultural unawareness, themselves.

But, in that moment, the tables were reversed; my clients’ naming preferences had gone right over my head. I had committed a gross faux pas.

Why It Matters

As a collaborative professional, I try to be sensitive to my client’s values, even when they differ from my own. Perhaps especially then. After all, cultural awareness has become more essential than ever, in a world in which people of diverse backgrounds are becoming more and more closely interconnected by the internet and by the ease with which we travel and relocate.

One of my goals in every collaborative divorce is to establish a connection. Another is to support my client’s values. So, when it was evident that I had not, I worried that my clients’ faith in me may have been damaged. I was quick to apologize. Immediately. And quick to name my mistake. And quick to ask to be educated. (I discovered that the formality of naming conventions differs even from country to country amongst Spanish-speaking folk.)

The clients equally quickly forgave my insensitivity and assured me my error was not uncommon. I’m confident their beautiful, shining star, Hoshi, is blissfully unaware how her light helped make me more culturally sensitive.

What do you think? How would you have reacted?

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