How wide is your community? | Wes Thiessen
Friday, April 09, 2021 @ 9:48 AM | By Wes Thiessen
Many who haven’t had the opportunity to travel to places outside of North America, or haven’t taken it, are often unaware of the different norms, values and practices of those outside of Canada. The physical distance and living arrangements we have with others can be characterized as a continuum, with the two opposing ends labeled as “Communitarian” and “Individualist.”
Along with several other axes of cultural characteristics researched by sociologists such as Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars, this locus of space between you and others helps define different cultures.
If you deal with clients who come from another culture, being aware of this mode of culture can be useful in better understanding your clients and helping them move forward, regardless of what the issue is that has brought them to your practice.
Sharing things in common
“Living in community,” as some people like to describe those who tend towards the Communitarian end of this scale, became very vivid to me while a guest in someone else’s home, observing one of the family members walking around the house in my shoes.
Where I lived in north Africa it is customary to remove your footwear upon entering a home, for the same reason it is traditionally removed in Canada — to help keep the house clean. Even in upper-class homes people will remove their shoes, and if you are a guest, it is common to be offered a pair of house shoes or slippers so you feel at home.
On one visit, I was a little surprised to see someone else wearing the shoes that I had worn to the home. My Canadian upbringing might be somewhat offended that the host’s family member was wearing my shoes, but local custom revealed to me that the action demonstrated a welcoming of me, or a recognition that I was now part of this community within the family. It signaled that I belonged. Sharing with others is a sign of communal value — all are part of a larger whole.
Knowing everything about each other
Family members who live with you can easily be aware of too much about your social life, which can be disturbing to many. The smaller the home you live in, the more intense the interaction may be, resulting in your family members knowing more about your personal business than you prefer. But when you interpret that in the light of a community that cares about your needs, goals and outcomes, you may begin to realize the advantage of being more transparent about your life.
Having your family know all about your life doesn’t always guarantee a positive outcome, yet when the benefits are mutual and all feel well cared for, it can work to your advantage.
When life is lived with this family expectation, its absence can be very disconcerting, leaving individuals feeling isolated, uncared for and forgotten. If, as a lawyer, your non-Canadian born client may be dealing with some of these feelings as the result of living apart from their Communitarian family, this may be at the root of those feelings.
Parents marry off their children
As children grow, senior members of their family begin to think about with whom these younger family members will spend the rest of their lives. It’s part of the responsibility of the older generation to marry off the younger generation. If the father is living, he may take charge, otherwise it could be an uncle or older brother who is responsible for seeing to a good union.
This is a responsibility that is taken very seriously in many cultures, as the choosing of a mate has lifelong ramifications. Traditionally, in many cultures, marriages are arranged based on family values, connections, relations and in some cases, useful alliances. Attitudes have, and are, changing, yet in many places these older customs prevail, deciding one’s lifetime partner. Rather than a spouse being chosen on a feeling of love or infatuation, which may be fleeting, it is based on reasoned consideration.
If the family is behind the choice of a mate, if rocky times arise in the marriage, it won’t be just the couple who are trying to keep things together. Other family members will come to their aid, and there will be a stronger force keeping them together as there is more than simply their successful union at stake; it also speaks to the choices the family made. Many others may be involved.
This can be a real benefit, helping to keep this couple, and also the greater society, held together in stronger bonds of matrimony. The result, many believe, is a more stable community. Communitarian living contributes to this outcome.
Community decisions (for the benefit of the community, not just the individual)
The locus of consideration when making a decision by people who live in Communitarian societies grows and shifts depending on the decision to be made and those affected by it. Rather than asking the question, “Will this benefit me?” the questions will include: “Will this decision be good for my family? For my parents? For my siblings? Will we all benefit from this, or at least will there be a net benefit for the whole family?”
If the outcome will negatively impact the family, even though it may create a positive benefit for the individual, the decision could very likely be scrapped altogether in favour of serving the needs of the larger family.
This is part one of a two-part series. Part two: How wide is your community: Practical applications for lawyers.
Wes Thiessen lived in the Middle East and North Africa for over 17 years. He now lives in rural southern Alberta with two of his married children, their spouses and two grandchildren. Thiessen works as a family mediator. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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