You may remember the Seinfeld episode in which George, for ulterior motives, attempts to convert to the Latvian Orthodox religion. The priest, attired in somber black vestments and a trapezoidal headpiece, asks George why. I like the hats? was the best he could come up with.
New York is chock-a-block with different faiths and cultures, but we often don't know much more about them than their hats (or yarmulkes, saris, turbans, robes, what have you). On October 18, our good friend and mediator NYPD Detective Jeff Thompson assembled a panel of leaders of the Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Buddhist communities in our city, to familiarize our mediators with their traditions, religious practices, and cultural norms. The event was part of a wonderful initiative by Prepare New York (http://prepareny.ning.com/) , an interfaith coalition that is supporting cross-cultural dialogue citywide, in observance of the 10th anniversary of September 11.
Processing cultural differences in mediation is a balancing act. On the one hand, we don't want to stereotype, make assumptions, and pigeonhole clients based on their appearance. Once, a mediator noticed that a client was wearing a crucifix, and asked her what her faith told her about forgiveness. Her response: nothing, as she was an atheist, who just happened to like crucifixes.
On the other hand -- and of course this goes without saying -- we want to be aware of, respectful to, and non-judgemental of cultural differences. So if, for example, a Hassidic gentleman declines a handshake from a female mediator, he may simply be practicing his belief. Or he may just not like the mediator. Could go either way. But better to assume the former.