closeup of businessmen shaking hand during negotiations

3 Ways to Overcome Cultural Barriers in Negotiations

two business men shaking hands in a negotiation

Knowing how to best navigate and overcome diverse cultural barriers during negotiations has become more important than ever. Effective negotiators understand that one of their most essential tools for success is communication. Communication is how we build great relationships, achieve desired outcomes, and resolve disagreements.

While teaching negotiations, I am often asked: “I’m going to be traveling to (insert country here). What’s the best way to go about negotiating there?” It’s a simple question, yet the answer is both simple AND complex.  

When negotiating with foreign suppliers, prospects, or clients, you’ll often confront an array of problems such as unfamiliar laws, government, and cultural differences. In particular, differences in culture can complicate business relationships and communications in many ways. For this article, we’ll consider negotiating as primarily determined by geography and culture. There are three main models: the culture of face, the culture of honor, and the culture of self-respect.

The Culture of Face

The culture of face is practiced primarily in Asian countries. The concept of “face” is a combination of reputation, influence, social standing, honor, and dignity. “Saving face” and “building face” are preeminent in Asian cultures. Meaningful discussions are preceded with lengthy hours of personal interaction and small talk. This chitchat can be disconcerting for the negotiator from the West who is unfamiliar with the Asian cultures and is used to simply “getting down to business.” To Westerners, this approach is unnecessary and offers little place in business discussions. But to the Asian negotiator, those informal, “getting-to-know-you” sessions are vital in laying the groundwork for building trust and giving face.

Additionally, the Western negotiator should avoid causing a loss of face when in Asian countries. Raising your voice, creating a scene, or embarrassing someone in front of their peers are things you should avoid at almost all costs. Instead, maintaining a calm composure and a smile – especially when things go wrong, will pay off in the long run. Be sure to brush up on the cultural mores of the region you’ll be visiting.

The Culture of Honor

Countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America follow what could best be described as the culture of honor. To them, the most important thing is to be seen as a moral person who is nonetheless tough and won’t allow others to take advantage. In these cultures, if no threat to honor or reputation is perceived, negotiators can be extremely friendly, polite, and hospitable.  But if they perceive their reputation or honor as being threatened, (or that of one’s family or friends), it’s not uncommon to encounter aggressive, competitive behavior.

The Culture of Self-Respect

In the West (Western Europe and North America), individuals practice the culture of Self Respect. One’s own dignity determines this culture, based on self-appraisal and achieving one’s own goals and living up to personal standards. Self-respect is based on individual achievement.

Overall,  there are some general characteristics that many other cultures share that Westerners should be mindful of during negotiations such as:

Patience

Benjamin Franklin, the quintessential American, coined the phrase, “Time is Money.”  For Westerners, the tendency is to want to hurry up and get things done. Other cultures, for the most part, tend to take the long view where very little happens quickly.  

Negotiating Space

Typically, most other cultures are not shy about leaving themselves negotiating space. As a buyer, it doesn’t embarrass them to offer what we might consider a ridiculously low bid. On the selling side, they’re usually not ashamed about asking for a lot and starting with a very high opening demand.

Thrift

As related to their idea of negotiating space, negotiators from other cultures tend to be extremely frugal, especially in the area of making concessions. In the West, the tendency is to look at concession-making like playing a tennis match: I hit the ball to you; you hit the ball back to me. There’s a give-and-take. But with other cultures, if you concede to them once, they believe that you will need to make additional concessions before they have to make any. Their logic is, if they hold out, they have a better chance of finding out how anxious you are to close the deal.

Emotion

While this tendency is beginning to change in Western culture, the traditional view has been that the role of emotion has no place at the bargaining table. Having a “poker face” has been considered a positive thing in negotiations. Other cultures, however, are not afraid to show emotion often using dramatic behavior to get their way. This approach can be extremely off-putting to an unprepared Western negotiator, making them question whether or not they pushed too hard, and back off. 

Authority

Westerners typically want to have as much authority as possible in a negotiation. Other cultures, not so much. They tend to go into a negotiation with minimal power. This is true, especially in some Asian cultures, where it’s challenging to find one person who has the authority to do anything. There, decisions tend to be made by a group consensus, rather than by an individual authority.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to realize that there is no one cultural “best” way in negotiations, but there are techniques that we can learn and adapt from one another. Additionally, don’t forget to do your homework about culture, show respect, be aware of their perception of your culture, and look for ways to bridge the gap. Following these practices should result in a successful encounter for both parties.