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Condominium Conflict Resolution: Recognizing the Role of Culture

"Cultural fluency means recognizing that language shows us particular views of the world. Rather than being a direct representation of reality, language reflects our starting points, assumptions, and ideas about how the world works and our places in it. Remembering this, we keep an open mind to diverse starting points and assumptions. When communicating across linguistic boundaries, it is helpful to use more than one phrase to convey intended meaning and to check for feedback often.”
LeBaron, Michelle, Bridging Cultural Conflicts - A New Approach for a Changing World, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003) at p.99. Reprinted with permission.

There is a trend in condominium corporations to adopt increasingly detailed rules to govern how residents live and interact. One could say that if everyone used “common sense”, there would be no need for any rules at all. The problem, in my view, is not an absence of “common sense”. Rather the problem is that what one person may view as “common sense” is not shared amongst all people (often not even amongst a few). In the condominium context, some people feel it makes “common sense” to grow tomato plants and hang laundry on balconies, while others maintain that it only makes “common sense” that an exterior uniform appearance is essential. Some people feel it makes "common sense” to prohibit pets from residing in the building, while others maintain that their pets should be allowed to "do their business” on the balcony to the detriment of anyone or any plants on the balcony below! For others still, rules are only considered at all, if they get caught breaking them.

We cannot escape conflict (e.g. recall trying to find a parking space during the holidays). However, while conflict exists all around us, we can learn to work with it to avoid the conflict escalating into a full dispute. It is my position that, in condominium corporations, the owners and residents are best served by dealing with conflict proactively, and not waiting for a legal dispute to develop.

The old adage “high fences make good neighbours” is broken down, or at least transformed, in the communal living environment that is a condominium corporation. In all relationships, conflict exists. In condominium corporations, people of diverse cultures, which could include, but is in no way limited by, different nationalities, sexual orientation, abilities, professions, and experiences, must figure out how to be “good” neighbours. To get through the conflict, an effective mechanism to resolve conflict should take into account the unique aspects of this environment; including the impact of culture brought to the table by the parties involved.

Particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, the cultural diversity among, and within, condominium corporations is tremendous. One building may be very multinational. Another may be dominated by a single nationality. Another may be dominated by two very different nationalities. In older condominiums, there is often a history of shifting amongst dominant ethnic groups to reflect patterns of immigration. The result is often a global community on a micro level within our Canadian framework. Often individuals within a geographic “culture” share identities, meanings and trust. The flip side can also mean that those outside the culture are not understood, are stereotyped and not trusted. How often have we found ourselves falling back upon cultural generalizations and stereotypes to explain a conflict? How often have we found that as the conflict continues, trust diminishes, meanings become confused and identities clouded?

Learning how to best adapt to cultural influences is not an easy task. It requires that we achieve personal awareness of the experiences and impressions that impact our views and those that others hold of us. It also requires that we be always cognizant of decisions that we make. While it is far easier to react automatically with little concern of the cultural environment that we might find ourselves in; this may prove both improper and counterproductive in resolving the conflict at hand.

In general terms, the idea of what our "culture” is seems so simple, so predictable, so communal: we adopt the culture (and the stereotypes) of our parents or grandparents; whoever it was that originally came to Canada from “away”. Looking only slightly beyond the “general terms”, there is little that is simple, predictable or communal about culture, particularly regarding its perceived impact on an individual.

While the impact of cultural influences within condominium corporations is both fascinating and readily evident, it is also fraught with the potential for conflict if ignored or if focused on too intensely. There is a need to be aware and cognizant of, as well as the need to adapt to (in some cases), the cultural impact of conflict on the individual and group levels, rather than making assumptions based upon stereotypes or generalizations.

The Condominium Act 1998 (Ontario), as well as numerous other provincial and federal Canadian Laws, adds further challenges by imposing standards of the “prudent person” and “reasonableness”. It is difficult to truly understand what a “prudent person” and “reasonableness” means when we have so little “common sense” in common. However, with this said, if a dispute proceeds to court, a court will find a standard which is acceptable within the Canadian context, while trying to acknowledge the experiences contributing to who we are.

Some things to consider:

1.    Be Aware: Hindsight is invaluable. Without generalizing, try to learn from experience what works to bridge cultural gaps and build trust.

2.    Go Slowly: Stereotyping is very quick and easy; however, at best, it serves as a marginal starting point for moving forward to understanding different viewpoints. Stereotyping can also reflect closed mindedness, and may widen the breadth of misunderstanding. It is incumbent upon us to learn about our neighbours, to find out what is important to them, what are their concerns, why they act (and react) the way they do, instead of ostracizing them because they may hold different beliefs or values from us.

3.    Show Respect: Trying to understand where others are starting from, including which generalizations or stereotypes others may hold of you. It may be counter-productive to embarrass or belittle an opposing party in front of his/her peers or cultural group. For example, if someone does not read or speak English, it does not mean that he/she is illiterate or lacks intelligence or is an unreasonable person. It means only that he/she does not yet communicate in English.

4.    Don’t be Bullied: By this I mean:

a)    Be open-minded;

b)    Listen to different perspectives and assess the validity of the same based on one’s own judgement;

c)    Appreciate that those “in power” may be pursuing a personal agenda;

d)    Make your own well thought out assessment of any given situation;

e)    Say “no” if necessary; and

f)     Appreciate that understanding a person’s position does not mean giving into it.



From “Common Elements" Fall 2004
By Richard A. Elia
B. Comm. LL.B., LL.M. (ADR), A.C.C.I.

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