(April 30, 2021, 11:28 AM EDT) — Previously, I introduced the Communitarian/ Individualist dimension of culture and how it can be seen in real life examples from different ends of the spectrum. This next dimension of culture, the Universalist/Particularist spectrum, is equally easy to understand, but the nuance in its influence can make it a little more difficult to recognize as the source of a client’s behaviour or world view.

At its core, the Universalist/Particularist spectrum asks whether all people should be held to the same standards and receive the same treatment(Universalism), or if for some reason, individuals should be considered on a case-by-case basis (Particularism).

Imagine a familiar sight in many television and movie scenes where a speeding motorist, stopped by a highway patrol, produces particular identification or a special card allowing them free passage regardless of their illegal behaviour. Police officers, and sometimes their relatives or friends, or someone with a particular status, can often be“ overlooked” when their behaviour does not fit what society has decided is acceptable.

In Canada, we generally follow a universalist principle — the law applies equally to all. However, we know that in some circumstances this principle is not always true. Many would note that the wealthier one is, the greater the capacity to retain a more experienced and reputable lawyer. The end result is that the rich have a tendency to get better representation than the poor. This disparity though, is not the full meaning of a Particularist tendency.

When I lived overseas, I recall stories of university students who would come to me to tell me of their Particularist woes. They had taken a national exam, which was later corrected by an unknown grader. They were convinced that their last name identified the region of the country they had come from, and as a result, they were penalized for simply being from the “wrong” part of the country. That part of the world traditionally operated on a tribal system and clear signs of the influence of this were still present in everyday life.

In Canada, although we operate generally on Universalist principles, Particularism can be seen in employment hiring practices, car sales lots and even service in the supermarket or retail checkout line. Lawyers are no strangers to the operatives of Particularism, as victims sometimes pursue legal recourse for prejudicial treatment.

Like racism, Particularism is prejudicial treatment due to someone’s family background, social status, economic level or even political affiliations. Corruption through bribery is supported in a society where Particularism operates as the cultural norm, for when each individual is not treated the same, greasing the hands with a little cash can increase the likelihood you’ll receive a positive outcome to your dilemma.

As opposed to a Universalist culture where personal merit determines your ability to advance in society, Particularist cultures focus on connections — anything that can create a status for you that is not based on what you’ve done yourself. The personal relationship between individuals is the strongest influence in ensuring that the needed service or good will be completed.

In traditional cultures, a Particularist leaning ensures the survival of the culture, as it promotes one’s own clan to the detriment of others, similar to the “America First” policy in the United States during the previous presidency, often on a smaller scale.

Many immigrants coming from Particularist leaning cultures are attracted to those that support Universalist principles, knowing that if they are hard working they will have an equal chance of moving up the ladder. They likely experienced suppression in their home cultures and yearn to be treated the same as everyone else. Coming to your office, they will desire to be treated with dignity and respect, hoping also for a dash of patience to get them through a likely uncomfortable situation.

There are other immigrants who will have arrived in Canada based on Patricularism — someone they knew or were connected with somewhere along the line, helped them to move forward in their desire for immigration. This is not a reflection on Canada’s immigration policy but rather the hoops they needed to jump through in order to even get to the immigration line in the nation from which they came.

How can you best serve clients while considering this dimension of culture?

  • A clear and ready description of fairness is always useful but clients also need to see this inaction. A recent photo on social media of Canada’s Minister of National Defence, Harjit Sajjan, standing in line waiting his turn to enter a retail store is an excellent example of universalism in practice. Sajjan’s political position does not entitle him to preferential treatment in the retail world.
  • Those who are unaccustomed to fair treatment, whether positively or negatively, may need to be reassured that in your office, each individual is treated the same, regardless of other qualities, attributes, affiliations or characteristics. Sometimes a little reassurance from the professional providing the service is useful. Let your clients know that they will receive the same level of service as any other Canadian citizen.
  • Those used to being treated with an extra special perk due to knowing the boss or an influential neighbour may need a reality check.
  • You may want to increase your own self-awareness of how you respond to clients, as subconscious bias may lead you to treat some better than others, and simply being aware of the issue may decrease this tendency.

It is always wise to ensure that your clients, especially those new to Canada, are aware, in simple terms they can understand, what exactly is the process in which they are engaged. Providing that in literature may or may not be useful, depending on the literacy ability of your client. Pacing your speech is also another helpful way of making yourself more accessible to new immigrants who might not be very skilled in English.

Coming to a new culture is unsettling, scary or terrifying and likely completely unfamiliar. A few kind words can go a long way. Some may accuse me in this advice of hypocrisy — treating the new comer with Particularist tendencies. I would submit that just as we would speak slower, clearer and louder with someone who is hard of hearing, we can extend the same deference to those who are new in our nation. Clearly outlining for them that Canada is a land where we treat each other with equal service and kindness, while demonstrating that in your practice, will create lasting impressions on those you serve.

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 wes@resolvelegalgroup.com.

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