Tennis Just Served Up a Lesson About Breaking Culture
What we can learn about conflict & culture from the Serena Williams controversy
Posted Sep 19, 2018
When I first entered the world of conflict resolution 38 years ago, I was a mediator in Harlem, New York. I remember distinctly in my training I was told that any time that two or more people who were in the conflict started arguing, I was to interrupt that. Arguing was defined by my white trainers as the disputants engaging with each other in loud voices or in ways that seemed like they were getting very heated; which was scary stuff and potentially dangerous so we were to immediately shut that down and make them talk to us, the mediators.
Now, I’m from the Bronx, born and raised, and I’m mediating in Harlem where at that time everybody looks pretty similar to me, black and brown people. I knew right away that what I was being told to do didn't fit for the culture. I knew that in African-American, Caribbean American, and Hispanic/Latino culture conflict looks different from what I was taught in school. In other words, “arguing” really looks different. So for me, my rule of thumb was if there are loud voices, but they are shouting about what is happening in the conflict then I would sit back, take notes, and observe to make sure that the conversation didn't descend into name calling or put downs. If it did, then I would step in. I was familiar with the culture of conflict in this community mostly because it was my own culture of conflict.
There are few places where culture is more present than when we are in conflict though often subconsciously. Cultural norms are passed down in every area of our lives, so when conflict shows up as a normal part of life, we learn how to engage in it. Everything from tone of voice, body language, sarcastic phrases, putdowns, perspectives, views about conflict, avoidance, verbal and physical violence are all learned behavior often sanctioned by culture.
Let me turn this conversation to Serena Williams. First of all, Serena was involved in a conflict; I have yet to hear people use that word. There are so many other words that I'm hearing but this is a conflict, and in conflict too many things are taken for granted that never should be. The first is that we come into conflict clean, that what this conflict is about is what's happening right now in this moment—however, that is rarely ever true. Present in most conflicts is history, perception, and culture. History dominates in culture. Serena had years of history both as an African American female professional tennis player and as an African American woman in America. That cannot be left behind, especially during conflict. Perception is everything, and culture and bias affect our perception. How the officials involved perceived Serena’s behavior in this conflict was affected by their own cultural lenses about what engaging in conflict, in particular what women engaging in conflict with men and especially white men in charge is supposed to look like. Argue with me if you want to but there are many articles that attest to this (The Perception Institute’s article on Representation, Culture and Perception is a good one.) Culture involves every aspect of our lives, so having it show up in conflict is both inevitable and unavoidable.
From the moment Serena chose to engage with umpire Carlos Ramos she brought along all three of those elements of conflict and more. The intersection of culture and conflict in this particular interaction is both relevant and glaring. Two people from two different ethnic cultures, different genders, each with their own histories of conflict engagement in the middle of one of the biggest sports “cultural” events of the year were involved in a huge conflict, and the world was watching.
Watching the video with the eye of a conflict resolution strategist, I saw a multitude of lessons.I’m just going to toss out a few of them here.
1. The world of professional tennis has its own culture.
Carlos Ramos upholding that culture in his role of umpire used the cultural norms to back up his engagement in this conflict. It is has been and continues to be a predominantly white, male, high income dominated culture with rules not only applying to the game, but how you interact during the game. The rules set up here are through the lens of the dominant culture, particularly when it comes to interactions. The way that white men with money interact when conflict exists, even when it ends badly, is a known and familiar thing to officials in charge. Women in general and women of color and the way they interact in conflict is something the sport and its viewers have still not gotten used to. Being “unladylike” in a sport that was never created for you in the first place is still perceptually judged more harshly than a man getting angry.
2. Media as a culture heightens conflict.
The portrayal of conflict in the media is geared toward any negative aspects that they can find. The lens that they look through is skewed to present a very surface-level picture with name calling as their go to description, with very little analysis of conflict in its stages and certainly absent of any cultural norms. It is much easier to call Serena a brat, to say that she lost it, or unleashed a major rant, or had a meltdown than it is to examine her handling of this conflict from the more complex lens of conflict and culture.
3. Emotions are prevalent and important in many cultures.
In many cultures emotional engagement is often demonstrated by loud voices, animated gestures, and heated conversation. These are all signs of commitment, passion and often the frustration of needing to be heard. Serena engaged with emotion yes, but there were only a few times where she led with emotion. For the majority of the conflict she spoke about where she disagreed with the umpire, and she spoke about what was important to her for him to note—her reputation and the need for an apology. Breaking the racket was a place where emotion got the best of her, but crying was not. Through her tears she was still communicating how unfair she thought this was and the discrepancies she saw between the treatment of men and women.
Breaking culture here means adjusting our own lens when it comes to watching this, and any public conflict, to look for the way cultural norms infuse themselves into it and how that may be different from our own norms. Otherwise, we will continue to label people by standards that don’t incorporate the realities of difference.