Cross-Cultural Collaboration

Who Are You? Identity Across Cultures


In cross-cultural settings, leaders who convene collaborative processes, as well as practitioners who mediate and facilitate them, may find themselves identified not by their current roles or personalities but by a history of conflict they had nothing to do with.

Some years ago, I was visiting a Native American community along the Colorado River in Arizona. A friend of mine had arranged an introduction to a man who had been an officer in tribal government and was also well versed in the traditional culture of his people. When we met at a local lunch spot, I introduced myself as so-and-so’s friend, who had told me so much about him, and we exchanged a few joking words.

Then, he looked closely at me and asked:

“Who are you?”

I talked a bit about my work at that time and the private foundation project that had brought me there. My hope was, I explained, that he could help me understand problem X then facing the tribal government, and I briefly described the kind of help that the foundation could provide if the council were interested.

He took that in, then pressed me again.

“But who are you?”

I was not at all sure what he meant and hesitated a moment. Then he followed up to be clearer about what he needed to know.

“What are you here for? What do you want – and what does that foundation want? Do you think you can really help us, or just tell us what to do? Are you on our side – can you do us some good?”

He was asking if he could trust me, but that was not all. To reach that trust he needed to know if I understood the part of my identity that would be most obvious to the members of this community. Did I understand that I would be seen first not as an individual but as another Anglo shaped by the society that had so long dominated the community. Who I was in that setting involved a lot more than my own background or intentions to offer support. My good intentions were irrelevant. I was carrying with me the power of potentially dangerous institutions, however modest that power might seem to me. I never thought of myself as powerful, but that just meant I wasn’t seeing the big picture from his perspective. History had taught this community to watch out for Anglo’s bearing gifts.

In that setting, I was an advocate for tribal interests and managed to pass the test. Collaborative practitioners see a great divide between the roles of advocate and mediator – and I saw it that way when I made the transition several years later. To the Native American or Hispanic communities that I often dealt with, however, the difference was not so great. Whatever my own role might be, the question was not simply about trusting me but more importantly about trusting what I was offering to do. A collaborative process could be interpreted as yet another product of the political and economic institutions they so distrusted.

I often found that the more energy I put into discussing the ways in which a collaborative process might serve a community’s goals, the less trustworthy both I and my process seemed. However much I proclaimed its voluntary nature and the group’s obvious right to decide about participation for itself, the more skeptical they became. I was confused.

After one such frustrating session, a Native American friend of mine put it simply: “If you’re talking about it, you’re advocating it.” And what my listeners heard me advocating, despite all disclaimers, was a negotiated solution to a high stakes issue to be achieved in an unfamiliar process they had not created. They were asked to play by someone else’s rules. If outsiders were pushing them in that direction, they expected that the long-term benefits would more likely meet those interests than their own. That fit their history much more than the promises of fair treatment through collaborative negotiations that I was describing.

It takes a great deal of time to build a trusting relationship under these circumstances, and time is often what a public policy process does not allow. The conveners are typically public agencies under pressure to show results, and they have to impose a tight timeline on a collaborative effort to reach agreement. Even if the timeline is a long one, there is a push to get it underway as fast as possible. Moving quickly, however, makes it that much harder to get past the initial distrust rooted in long experience.

To accomplish anything at all, I had to learn as much as I could about how a public identity across cultures could undermine a process before it got started. It might not be possible to alter that perception and overcome a legacy of distrust, but understanding what people were seeing when I arrived in their midst was the essential first step.