negotiating with other cultures

Cross-Cultural Negotiating – What You Need to Know

negotiating with other cultures

Our global village is shrinking. The world is getting smaller, and interaction between societies increases daily. For the Western negotiator, this means an increased likelihood of more contact with people from other cultures. To successfully navigate through a productive negotiation with someone whose cultural mores might be significantly different, it becomes increasingly imperative to understand the similarities, as well as the differences between the two.

Cross-cultural negotiation has several built-in stumbling blocks, the first being problems with communication. Different phrases might mean different things to different cultures. When making a request for action to a negotiator from the Far East, the response might be something like, “That will be difficult.” To a Western businessperson, unfamiliar with a culture that avoids confrontation, that might mean that they’re still considering it, when, in fact, the answer is no. There are also cultural differences that make it challenging to comprehend actions. For example, in the West, the hiring of relatives might smack of nepotism. In the Middle East, however, it is an accepted practice which, in their minds, ensures loyalty and trustworthiness.

The most common danger when discussing how other cultures negotiate is relying too heavily on stereotypical behavior. For example, when meeting with a counterpart from the Far East, if you rely too heavily on the stereotypical norm, you might expect them to be overly polite and quiet in the negotiation, while someone from Italy or Australia might be expected to act extroverted and gregarious. Those assumptions may or may not be accurate since culture is only one facet of one’s behavior and identity. We tend to focus on those differences in culture simply because they are the most obvious.

That being said, some general differences separate the negotiation styles of Western society with those of much of the rest of the world.

Other cultures tend to approach the concept of authority differently.

Ordinarily, negotiators from Western cultures tend to value the concept of authority. They want to be the decision-makers, the one that has the final say-so. But we tend to take it a step further – not only do we want to have the authoritywe want to demonstrate and exercise that authority. This is not as true with other societies, especially those in the Far East. In those cultures, essential decisions are routinely made by a group consensus of opinion, rather than by a centralized authority. This can be disconcerting to someone not well-versed in the societal behavior of the other side.

Typically, other cultures tend to be much more patient and take the long view.

When someone makes a concession to someone from the West, there is almost a compulsion for the negotiator to make a concession in the other direction. It’s even more pronounced when someone makes two or three concessions to us. At that point, how might you feel about asking for more? Most people in the West are probably thinking something along the lines of, “Okay, now it’s my turn.” Other cultures are generally not like that. When they get two, three, or four concessions in a row, their attitude is usually along the lines of, “Let’s see how many more concessions they’ll make before we have to make any.” Understand, we’re not advocating an uncompromising mindset, but rather that you shouldn’t be in a rush to concede. If you do, instead of sending a message of a willingness to deal, you’re instead, at least in their minds, sending a message of weakness and raising their expectation index.

Furthermore, Western negotiators often take a short-range view of the negotiation, with the ultimate goal of getting the deal done as soon as possible. Again, not so much with other cultures, particularly those in the Far East. Those who have had the opportunity to negotiate in Japan or China quickly realize that “time” takes on an entirely different dimension; nothing happens very quickly. In fact, “time is money” is a particularly American idiom, originally coined by Benjamin Franklin. To most other cultures, the concept of “time is money” means the exact opposite of what it means to us. To us, it means “hurry up,” while to other cultures, the message is, “slow down.” The more time you take in a negotiation, the better you’re likely to do.

When beginning the bargaining process, people from other cultures tend to leave more room to deal.

In Western society, you tend to start fairly close to where you want to end up ultimately. As a buyer, you wouldn’t begin with a below-the-basement offer, any more than, as a seller, you’d start with a stratospheric asking price. Conventional Western protocols dictate that both parties start “in the ballpark.”

Most other cultures, unfortunately, seem to deal with much bigger ballparks. They’re not afraid of starting with very low opening offers, or extremely high opening demands. This can be a shocker for the unprepared, but it’s something that more Westerners should consider – leaving more room to negotiate. As a buyer, starting lower (being prepared to defend your position to a spirited challenge), and starting higher as a seller, with the idea of being able to defend your asking price. But particularly when dealing with someone from another culture, not letting their low bargain-basement offer or stratospherically high opening demand throw you off stride.

Other cultures usually don’t share the Western propensity of “quid pro quo.”

Furthermore, Western negotiators tend to view the process of concession-making a little like a game of ping pong – taking turns hitting the ball back and forth. In other words, I make a concession to you, then you return a similar concession to me. Different cultures don’t usually follow that line of reasoning. If you make a concession to them, or two concessions, or three concessions, they’re more than likely going to wait to see how many more concessions you’re willing to give before they have to make any.

When making concessions, negotiators from other cultures tend to ask for a reciprocal concession. 

In Western cultures, we tend to frown on the idea of asking for something in return when we make a concession. The thought processes generally revolve around niceness or generosity. When I make a concession to you, it’s got to be “out of the goodness of my heart.” Because of that, Western negotiators often get thrown by the tendency of other cultures to ask for reciprocal concessions. Every adjustment or compromise is usually followed by a request for something in return – a trade-off of some kind. Often, these might be things they might not necessarily want but will be able to concede later on in the negotiation. 

So, with these generalities in mind, when doing negotiation cross-culturally, keep in mind the following:

Do thorough research of your counterpart’s culture and societal mores

Seek out information about the individual and the culture. Unfortunately, people are often much more likely to assume that someone from another culture is behaving unethically than they are to realize that there may be different standards of ethical behavior. By researching cultural taboos, rituals, and customs, you reduce the risk of making potentially offensive or embarrassing mistakes or jumping to erroneous conclusions about the other person’s motives, when there might be entirely different (and benevolent) explanations for their behavior. This will also help you break down some of the cultural barriers and improve your business outcomes.

Beware of an over-reliance on the cultural differences; instead, pay attention to the individual person. 

As mentioned earlier, don’t rely on stereotypical behavior. Try to discover who they are, where they’ve worked, what interests they might have, what particular skills they might possess. Obviously, LinkedIn can be a trove of knowledge to uncover this information, as well as asking questions of them and people within your shared network. In doing so, you’ll often come to realize that this person, like you, has been shaped more by their experience and personality than by their culture.

Bridge the cultural gap

Find areas of common interest or experience that transcend cultural differences.

Reduce pressure. 

Often, when we fall back on stereotypical behavior, the stress level increases. If that can be understood from the outset, try to ease the pressure (which permeates all negotiations) by attempting to get to know each other on a personal level, taking frequent breaks, and lessening the tension of immediate deadlines.

Don’t jump to conclusions during the negotiation

There might be cultural reasons behind the behavior. For example, while Westerners might tend to focus on logic and facts as the key to a successful negotiation, they might overlook that to their Chinese counterparts, the key is having a strong working relationship. Incidentally, the word they use is “guan-xi,” which has a substantially different meaning than the Western sense of “relationship.” In China, guan-xi means “networks” or “connections” that can open doors for new business and to help facilitate deals. 

 Keep it professional. 

Some cultures will try to test your patience to gauge how trustworthy you are. A loss of temper can be taken as a sign of disrespect.

Finally, continually improving technology means we now can often communicate with other cultures. Teleconferencing, email, and video calls can often help bridge distances and speed negotiations. However, it’s imperative to remember that an enormous amount of nuance can be lost without body language and non-verbal communication. Compensate for this by speaking clearly, having an effective plan, and knowing when it might be beneficial to have a face-to-face meeting.

Minor difficulties are inevitable while negotiating with other cultures. However, if you plan well, do your best to learn about the other side’s culture, and acclimate yourself with their customs, you’ll be in a much better position to close a successful deal.

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