Negotiating the cultural divide

Updated: Aug 27, 2018

Anyone who has ever tried to decide where to eat with a large group can attest that negotiations are tough.

Imagine making that decision with people who all speak different languages, come from different cultures, and have radically differing tastes in food. Suddenly, you’re wondering if you’re even going to eat at all.

Now envision yourself and the same group engaged in making business decisions with entire markets hinging on your ability to navigate these linguistic, cultural and personality differences. With global trade expected to grow even as the new U.S. administration enters a new era of protectionism, it’s as important as ever to understand the human nuances involved in negotiations.

For those of you dealing with international partners or vendors, knowing these folkways is just as important as preparing for a successful negotiation outcome. Even those who are experts in negotiation must familiarize themselves with cultural differences to gain more insight about the other party and to bring the parties closer to a deal.

To those seeking to understand the role of culture in negotiations, I recommend the best-selling book by Terri Morrison, “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands, Doing Business Around the World.” In her book, Ms. Morrison sets her readers up for success by explaining that success in the global marketplace begins with an expert understanding of international business etiquette, practices and cultural cues. Without it, businesses and organizations cannot develop a competitive network of customers, suppliers and talent.

As someone born in Hong Kong, raised in Africa and educated in the United States, I have been navigating, and even occasionally failing to navigate, cultural differences all my life. I know all too well that culture runs deeper than mere nuances; it influences how people make decisions. Ignoring cultural differences can be more than a faux pas. It can mean lost revenue, lost opportunity and lost respect.

First, remember how to negotiate

The best way to prepare for an international negotiation is to prepare to negotiate in general. I have several tips to help you get there. You can research the cultural differences of your counterpart all you want, but if you’re not prepared for the actual negotiation, you will get nowhere. With the basics covered, the following are some tips to help you navigate cultural divides:

  1. Be Respectful: If we genuinely respect people, we’ll usually do the right things. We’ll have more deference. We’ll listen better and listen to understand. We won’t interrupt.

  2. Be Curious: If you don’t ask questions, you won’t be able to see into their world and gain clarity into what their pain is. Without being able to understand their reality, we are not really negotiating.

  3. Be Fearless: If you do not come across as confident, they will also question why they want to do business with you. However, there is a huge difference between confidence and arrogance, which will immediately kill a negotiation. It’s also important to be confident in asking for a "no.” When people see that you want the deal but you're not desperate, it's more attractive.

Respect, curiosity, and fearlessness trigger a collaborative mindset which will enable the other side to feel safe. It is only when the other side feels they have the control they want or need that they will be calm, make good decisions, and follow through with ideas and execute on them. Once they feel safe, they will share more. Then you'll be able to see the real problem, work together, collaborate, and co-create solutions embraced by all.

Lastly, but perhaps most fundamentally, remember that no matter our cultural differences, at the end of the day, we’re all just human beings who form our negotiation prisms around feelings, faith, and facts. We make decisions based on what we feel, what we believe, and what we know.

Keeping all these things in mind, you can communicate and negotiate with anyone regardless of their language or culture. Such barriers then become simply an additional layer of doing business abroad.

Know the Differences

Always do your research before an international negotiation. Understand the nuances of the culture from the country and even the region in which you’re attempting to do business to give you a leg up. Additionally, be aware that there are also broader cultural norms that span multiple countries, or even continents. The following tips cover some commonly experienced scenarios:

  • Don’t make fun of their food. This should go without saying, but it’s something I’ve witnessed countless times while travelling with other Americans. Sure, it’s not easy seeing that freshly culled carp staring at you in Shanghai, but be respectful and humble. They will excuse you if you don’t like it, but there’s no excuse for being rude.

  • Don’t use the wrong hand to eat. In Africa, for example, eating is for the right hand, and the left hand is used for more “unsanitary” tasks. Accepting gifts, eating or doing pretty much anything with your left hand is rude in much of Africa, India, Sri Lanka and the Middle East.

  • Hold received business cards with both hands – study the card, refer to it and keep it handy. In many places in the world, it’s more than a card.

  • Americans are famously friendly, but hugging and touching others, even if only on the arm, is offensive in places like China, Thailand, Korea, and the Middle East. Respect that personal space varies from country to country.

At the end of the day, respect works everywhere, regardless of the culture. By simply taking the time to understand other cultures, knowing what the other party is seeking in a negotiation, not interrupting someone while talking, and using proper body language, you stand to be successful in international negotiations. The minute the other party feels respected -- and safe -- the more they want to deal with you, no matter what language you speak.

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