Using ODR Across Cultures: Best and Worst Practices


In this forum, we would like to discuss how culture manifests itself online as well as what challenges come along with cross-cultural communication online.  We would like to talk about these topics in the context of several different types of disputes addressed online, beginning with transactional disputes on Tuesday.  Feel free to share your anecdotes of what you have found does and does not work in regards to cross-cultural communication online. 


Please click this link to review an article that will supplement th...


General Discussion Questions

  • Should ODR be used for cultural understanding and does it make a difference?
  • Can you speak to the development of a “global, online culture”?


Moderated By:


Crystal Schweitzer is currently a student pursuing a Master's degree in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution through The Werner Institute at Creighton University.  Prior to her studies with Creighton, she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Crystal presently works as a Client Service Representative at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey (US) LLP in San Francisco, CA.  In the past, she volunteered her time mentoring exchange students, advising students setting off to study abroad and assisting at a children’s home.  She spent five months studying abroad in Argentina where she gained an appreciation for cultural diversity.  These experiences have led Crystal to Soliya, where she is currently undergoing an advanced training program to become a facilitator to discussions between those in the West and the Muslim World.


Colin Rule is Director of Online Dispute Resolution for eBay and PayPal. He has worked in the dispute resolution field for more than a decade as a mediator, trainer, and consultant. He is currently Co-Chair of the Advisory Board of the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution at UMass-Amherst and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School.

Colin co-founded Online Resolution, one of the first online dispute resolution (ODR) providers, in 1999 and served as its CEO (2000) and President. In 2002 Colin co-founded the Online Public Disputes Project, which applied ODR to multiparty, public disputes. Previously, Colin was General Manager of, the largest online resource for the dispute resolution field. Colin also worked for several years with the National Institute for Dispute Resolution in Washington, D.C. and the Consensus Building Institute in Cambridge, MA.

Colin has presented and trained throughout Europe and North America for organizations including the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the Department of State, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution. He has also lectured and taught at UMass-Amherst, Stanford, MIT, Creighton UniversitySouthern Methodist University, the University of Ottawa, and Brandeis University.

Colin is the author of Online Dispute Resolution for Business, published by Jossey-Bass in September 2002. He has contributed more than 50 articles to prestigious ADR publications such as Consensus, The Fourth R, ACResolution Magazine, and Peace Review. He currently serves as a contributing editor on eBay Radio and PayPal radio, and posts regularly to the Chatter, eBay's blog about the company and the community (in addition to his personal blog at Stanford). He holds a Master's degree from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution and technology, a graduate certificate in dispute resolution from UMass-Boston, a B.A. in Peace Studies from Haverford College, and he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995-1997.






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And let's think about all the different kinds of technology.  I find asychronous interaction is much more popular in low-context cultures, while synchronous interaction is more popular in high-context cultures -- think about cell phones in Africa and Asia.  When we think through all the different communication types available in the ODR toolbox we can find ways to build systems appropriate to different cultures.  I think mobile devices open up a whole new world of possibilities for ODR processes that might resonate more with high-context environments.  I think the interesting cross-cultural challenge comes when you have two parties with different cultural expectations and you're trying to build a system that works for both of them.  At eBay we went with pretty much 100% asynchronous, but that makes me wonder if we were engaging in the aforementioned "cultural imperialism" by imposing low-context standards on high-context participants.

Today we would like to focus the discussion on intercultural understanding.  Many great points were raised yesterday and I would like to hear more about the following: 

  • To continue on with Bill and Dan's discussion, how is ODR different for people of high context vs. low context cultures? 
  • Also, does ODR eliminate the potential for biased outcomes that can be typical in face-to-face interactions? 
  • Thirdly, to piggyback off of Colin's point, how do asynchronous and synchronous interactions effect the expression of cultural values?  While synchronous interactions allow for a more direct and immediate expression of cultural values, asynchronous interactions give parties the opportunity to produce more thoughtful responses which helps in preventing further escalation of the conflict.  In synchronous interactions, parties are more prone to quick responses that are not thought out so much, which can hurt the progression of the parties.  By selecting asynchronous or synchronous, are we exercising a form of cultural imperialism by imposing our preference on others? 
Hi Crystal and Colin!

What a great discussion!  Everyone has articulated wonderful observations regarding the culture of individuals utilizing ODR as disputing parties.  As I was reading the comments you and Colin posted I thought “The culture in the code!”  Which incidentally is the name of a paper by Daniel Rainey and Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah.  I actually pulled out my NDR 373 notebook to revisit the article.  ODR might hide, to some extent, the disputing parties culture, but can it hide its own?  Although technology isn’t inherently bias, might it be unintentionally designed to favor one culture over another?  And if the majority of ODR technology is being created within a “Western” structure of dispute resolution, I definitely think this “new online culture” could be one of cultural imperialism.  Regardless of the technology’s cultural code, ODR can offer positive aspects to both high and low-context cultures.  Including, enabling key stakeholders to be involved not only in the negotiations or dispute resolution, but also perhaps even in the ODR technology development.  “Cultural multi-tasking”—I like it.  After just coming from the webinar on Emotions and Online Media, I think Colin made some great points with respect to the necessity of flexible platforms.  Third parties should not only take the disputing parties, the nature of the dispute, and the emotions into consideration before selecting the most appropriate ODR platform, but also the cultures involved.

Crystal Schweitzer said:

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, guys.  We got together this AM to discuss your points in person, and a few of our thoughts are below:


Crystal: If you haven't already, check out the article attached to this thread -- it's about how Chinese and U.S. managers utilize different conflict management styles based on their underlying cultural values.  Chinese managers were more inclined to take on an avoidant strategy in conflict in order to preserve the personal relationship, while U.S. managers were more inclined to take on a competitive strategy due to their orientation to strive for achievement.  This ties in well with Robert’s illustration of South Korean merchants taking on another, unfamiliar conflict management style.  Very relevant to the direction this discussion is moving. 


Colin: I remember talking with an HR executive at a high tech firm that employed a lot of Asians.  She said that face-to-face conflict was considered very embarrassing, so the introduction of ODR was valuable because it provided a communication channel that didn't risk the embarrassment of public conflict.  Lots of issues came out over technology that were never raised in person.


Crystal: One thing this raises for me is the question of cultural imperialism.  Adam wrote, "Is the online world developing its own culture where traditional cultural awareness may be largely irrelevant?"  That's very interesting -- and the question I have is if creating and promoting this one global, online culture is a way of imposing new norms that may push out old norms?  Are we pushing the values of the dominant culture -- e.g., the most technologically advanced -- onto societies that are more recent adopters of technology?


Colin: We spent our whole lunch talking about this question of this emerging online culture and the risk of cultural imperialism.  I started out by thinking it wasn't cultural imperialism, but by the end, I came around to thinking that it might be, but unintentionally.  I actually think it's a step forward for humanity -- on eBay, for example, people don't know race, culture, language, gender, etc. of their transaction partners.  Maybe this is a way for us to get past some of those issues that have bedeviled humanity for generations.  But perhaps that's just me showing my own bias -- I just prefer the new online culture to the old one, but that may be the exact definition of cultural imperialism.


Crystal: The issues around discrimination are relevant in the systems design context as well.  When you think about the role of the "fourth party" there's not the same vulnerability to bias.  Technology isn't persuaded by someone's race or gender.  Algorithms aren't subconsciously swayed by such factors. 


Also, on Fatima's point, Yes, ODR does hide culture to a certain extent. But at the same time culture does not go away.  It's not as simple as saying people can't see it online, so it's not a factor.


Colin: But it's easy to over-emphasize culture online as well.  Maybe individuals who might have ascribed bias to certain responses in a face-to-face interaction will be more at ease online, because they know the other party doesn't have any information relevant to bias.  Perhaps people will be more forgiving of cultural mis-steps online because of that.


It also makes me think that humanity will need to learn "cultural multi-tasking" -- where individuals learn to navigate different cultures and switch between the value systems in real time.  For instance, at PayPal in India many of the employees live in very traditional communities where traditional cultural norms are still strong.  But each day they take a bus into the office where they work in a very modern environment, where more cosmopolitan norms are the default.  Those employees need to learn to succeed in both types of environments and switch back and forth seamlessly.  Maybe that kind of cross-cultural fluency will become the new normal, and help people to become more tolerant over time. 

Hi Robin, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You have made some really good points.  I am also pretty fond of the idea of having flexible platforms. In order to avoid overt or unintentional cultural imperialism, we could have several types of ODR platforms where at least one platform available would be an appropriate fit for disputants. When considering this further, it seems like some of the areas where the platform could be flexible would be in using asynchronous or synchronous interactions, communicating via email, video or audio, the amount of information brought to the table, and the number of parties involved, including the people that the disputant might want to consult with.  The Culture in the Code, is definitely a good article to supplement the discussions we are having here; thanks for bringing it up!  I'm going to go ahead and attach the article here in case others would like to check it out. 

Happy Thursday, all! We've got a couple interesting questions today that I think will spark some great dialogue. Today's questions focus on problem-solving in multi-party/public disputes. What do you think about the following?

How can protests and the media impact multi-party/public disputes? 

In public disputes, does public participation via electronic democracy have potential?  If so, how would this play out?

Lets also not ignore the impact on the culture of negotiation and ADR itself. There are many negative factors of ADR in general as flow from its current place in the culture of litigation.  For example, many commercial lawyers will complain that arbitration is too expensive (because that is how the market in commercial arbitration has developed) and/or that agreeing to mediation weakens  their litigation threat or breaches the image (a hard lawyer) they expect to, or want to,  be held of them by their clients. ADR itself has a different role in different countries. I am just back from chairing an ODR panel at the University in  Wroclaw, Poland last week-end ( the videos and presentations should be online soon) and was surprised to learn that such is the variation on the understanding in that country of mediation that  lawyers in Poland are not even allowed to be mediators and ,further, they 'mediate' between victim and criminal (in way that seems to be more than what otherwise may be called restorative justice! )

I believe that, in opening up access to different and more effective and more cost proportionate ADR processes, and, further, making such accessible direct to the public via the internet, so that clients begin to request ODR from their lawyers rather than waiting for it to be suggested by their lawyers (as with ADR generally) , will in time improve the wider interpretation of what is ADR and the culture of litigation and negotiation itself.  Whether ODR operators address those cultural barriers is the challenge. 

Protests and the media can effect all kinds of ADR disputes. Let me just give an example. In the current NBA labor negotiations both sides of the dispute have used global media (like ESPN) to try and further their own agenda. In addition they have used twitter and other social media to do the same. This can both hinder or help a dispute. For example, social media comments by a player could easily anger Commisioner David Stern. This might make Stern less flexible in negotiations. However, these avenues may also strengthen one sides arguments. Players and the League have both used the media to sway fan support thus putting pressure on the other side to settle. These are issues that 40 years ago would never have arisen. However, in our 24 hour a day news cycle and with the access of the average fan and player to social media this has really changed how parties in disputes can negotiate.

I'm not so worried about online cultural imperialism in part because we are still on the emerging side of the technology.  Surely as use becomes more ubiquitous the norms will be sidelined in many contexts by counterculture expressions and cliques.  Consider the way new users of texting completely transformed the language of that medium.  That said, I think there is substantive value to standardization of practices in arenas like ODR where success depends on a shared understanding of the discourse and outcome.  That itself, however, is a cultural expression -- like lawyers and judges in a traditional court system share both written and unspoken rules of conduct.  Because online exchanges offer such powerful means to democratize the development of language, I expect that domination will be nearly impossible.  We're lucky that we even share a common means for communicating online (e.g. HTML) and I note that the acceptance of that language was more due to a common interest and in shared effectiveness and prosperity than to any sector's desire to subordinate another.  In terms of ODR, the medium presents a dualist opportunity to embrace and celebrate our existing cultural diversity while simultaneously sharing a common means for effectuating cross-cultural communications.

This discussion of culture and technology use reminded me of the interesting work being done by anthropologist Genevieve Bell, a researcher working with Intel. This video provides her take on the importance of context and cultural location when considering the use of technology. Maybe we need to get some ethnographers working on ODR, sooner rather than later.


is truly a great topic. I am a visiting Cyberweek for the first time and I have
come across many excellent discussions. I have to admit that I am weary that
reduced exposure to cultural ignorance was a goal of the mediation, but Crystal
persuaded me otherwise to an extent. The underlying goal is dispute resolution
and if cross-cultural issues hinder the process, then I can understand the need
to reduce the noise. I also agree with Fatima that, given some contexts, cultural
awareness cannot be ignored. I thought Jeff brought up a great topic in cross-cultural
divorce settings. I do not have any experience in this area, but I would like
to learn more. I think this area is fascinating.

Welcome to the last day of Cyberweek!  I would like to highlight some great things we heard from yesterday’s participants. 

Moving toward a trend where disputants are the ones requesting the use of ODR, rather than it being the suggestion of the lawyer, is definitely something we can hope for as Graham talked about.  Once things begin to trend in this way, we can be sure that the field has reached a positive turning point where growth will occur. 

Ryan provided a really great example of how the media can affect the course of a dispute.  It is striking to me how protestors and the media can act as a sort of extension of the disputing parties.  When considering the idea of there being strength in numbers, this can be a very powerful tool that can greatly influence the outcome of a case.   

Conan stressed the importance of there being a shared understanding of what is being said and the end result while still enjoying how technology allows the expression of cultural diversity to thrive. 

Bill also shared an interesting video with us regarding the question of ‘where are you going?’  In the video, Genevieve Bell talks about how the concept of “where” is different for everyone and how not everyone has Internet access or a cell phone.  She also discusses the connection between location and identity and how people sometimes lie about their location because they have a desire to be in a better place than they are.  I am interested to hear what everyone’s thoughts are on this video and how her points tie into the use of ODR. 

Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts! 

For our final day here, we would like to discuss problem-solving in workplace disputes. 

Robert touched on face-saving a little bit earlier this week, but I would like to open it up for discussion and hear more about what others think about this.  While in some cultures, a more direct approach is desired in handling conflict, other cultures view this as undesirable and prefer methods of avoidance or working behind the scenes to resolve disputes.  For such cultures, ODR can be used as a way to save face when in the midst of conflict by not confronting the conflict head on in a face-to-face interaction.  What are your thoughts on the Internet acting as a face-saving venue for resolution? 

(See article attached to the forum at the top of the page by Michael W. Morris et. al. (1998), Conflict Management Style: Accounting for Cross-National Differences, to supplement this discussion)


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