Communicationâ€”or to be more precise, miscommunicationâ€”is at the heart of almost any dispute.Â When thereâ€™s an issue at hand, something that troubles or annoys one person, getting it to stop requires some type of communication with the other person (or persons).Â I think weâ€™ve all been here.Â You can try talking to him, or maybe leaving a â€œniceâ€ note on her windshield, or possibly even involving the authorities like calling the police.
AtÂ Community Boards we always encourage people to talk with each other.Â Yet where thereâ€™s a conflict, there are lots of strong emotions thatâ€™ll make talking and hearing a real challenge.Â This is where â€œmiscommunicationâ€ rears its somewhat ugly head.
Communication has multiple levels.Â First youâ€™ve WORDS.Â Words are slippery things; the same word usually has multiple meanings to different folks.Â If youâ€™re arguing with someone, itâ€™s hard to ask questions to clarify meaning.Â And itâ€™s not uncommon for an upset person to pepper an angry exchange with profanities and expletives.Â And letâ€™s face it, some people are more articulate than others.Â They stay focused and articulate no matter what, while other people become tongue-tied stutterers.
Next thereâ€™s TONE OF VOICE.Â Angry voices get louder, fearful voices can drop in volume so as become almost inaudible.Â Tones, too, are open to interpretation.Â A â€œraised voiceâ€ to one person is â€œyellingâ€ to another.Â This raised voice can indicate anger to one, assertiveness to another, and sincere engagement with the issue by a third.Â Tone of voice can be inflected with sarcasm, doubt, dismissal or disdain.Â Tone definitely colors meaning.
And then thereâ€™s BODY LANGUAGE:Â facial expressions, gestures, stance, proximity, the movement of arms and legs.Â Body language is heavily influenced by culture and ethnicity.Â Stepping forward can be interpreted as a threat, a response to a perceived challenge or simply a way to close space.Â Extreme arm and hand gestures (even â€œextremeâ€ is open to interpretation) can merely indicate emphasis, act as a stress release or be the precursor to possible fist in the nose.
Factor in the above when conflicts arise between folks raised in different cultures, speaking different languages (with varying levels of fluency in a shared language), and youâ€™ve gotÂ the potential for a real mess.Â Miscommunication is all too sadly the norm here.Â At Community Boards, weâ€™re both well prepared and well versed in multi/cross-cultural disputes.Â We provide intake and mediation in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese.Â Â Below are some examples of our expertise in action.
A Cantonese-speaking Chinese family was the first to move into an almost entirely African American neighborhood in Visitacion Valley.Â The man operated his own small plumbing business, and parked his panel van on street directly in front of his home.Â Heâ€™d purchased it used, and it was usually dirty because he worked construction sites.Â Directly across the street, an elderly Black woman thought it was an ugly eyesore that detracted from the neighborhood sheâ€™d worked hard to keep nice.Â She tried talking to him once and got no where.Â She called the police, DPT, her district supervisor multiple times to complain.Â Her supervisor sent her to us.Â Our Cantonese-speaking intake person contacted him; he agreed to meet with her.
Their mediation included Cantonese-speaking and African American mediators.Â During the mediation she explained that she couldnâ€™t understand him because of his accent, and he had â€œsnappedâ€ at her and wouldnâ€™t look her in the eyes. He responded that she had kept wagging her finger at him, which was disrespectful.Â He went on to explain that the van was basically his place of business; he parked it in front of his home for security since it had been broken into before.Â As a result of their discussion, she introduced him to a mutual neighbor with an empty garage, which he then rented for secure, overnight parking.Â He would keep wash the van regularly for the times it would be parked on the street.
A lesbian couple purchased a tenancy-in-common that shared a common wall with an apartment building.Â A Latino couple with three sons (all under five) lived in the adjacent apartment.Â On their side, the common wall was a long hallway with hardwood floors; for the couple, the wall included their bedroom and a home office.Â Noise became a serious concern.Â The children used the hallway as a place to play and run, making all the loud noises young siblings make: laughing, yelling, arguing, crying, playing with toys on the hardwood floor.Â The TIC owners tried talking to them, but they found the English/Spanish divide was too challenging.Â Plus they sensed some possible homophobiaâ€”the husband always frowned or scowled at them.
They came to Community Boards at the recommendation of a friend.Â During their mediation (which included a Spanish-speaking mediator), they explained that they ran a business out their home, which meant they were almost always there, working.Â The mother understood her boys made a lot of noise, but that meant they were happy and healthy, which is what every parent wants.Â As to homophobia, she and her husband admitted it made them uncomfortable, but it really wasnâ€™t any of their business.Â As part of their shared agreement, the couple helped pay for a runner for the hallway while the family agreed to â€œquiet timeâ€ for their sons during part of the day.
At Community Boards we encourage people not to jump to assumptions about what another is saying.Â In a city as diverse as ours, itâ€™s all too easy for miscommunication to exacerbate any problem into something more.
Darlene Weide is Executive Director ofÂ Community Boards, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization founded in 1976 that empowers communities and individuals to resolve conflicts peacefully and appropriately.