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5 Tips For Dealing With Common Cultural Clashes Before A Negotiation

Negotiation is ultimately a form of communication that starts with an intention to resolve a dispute and ends (hopefully!) in a settlement agreement. It’s a dialogue that you can prepare for – and I suggest that you do- but you will also have to react to unexpected revelations such as evidence, needs, interests or emotions.

When a negotiator comes from a different culture to your own, you may encounter several cultural clashes. These generally relate to perception and interpretation of your behaviour or words. That’s because each culture has different standards of social interaction and they may find some form of expression unacceptable.

In many Asian countries, it’s not acceptable to say “no” directly to somebody. You have to find indirect ways to communicate it. In Singapore for example, whilst it is considered rude to say the word “no”, people often say “cannot” instead. Eye contact, in some cultures is crucial for maintaining respect and showing that you are giving the other person your attention. However, in Japan, maintaining eye contact is uncomfortable. You might also find that in Latin American countries or in Spain, punctuality is not unusual.

Getting it wrong, or steam rolling your own culture over somebody else’s can ruin your chances of building trust, mending relationships and encouraging open, honest discourse. This can seriously damage your ability to negotiate a successful settlement. To prepare for any type of negotiation, you should take the following tips into consideration:

  • Research the culture you will be negotiating with. Even a simple google search will reveal some key behaviours to avoid. Learn how to greet them, understand whether they like or dislike to be tactile and whether they communicate directly or indirectly about their needs, interests and preferences.
  • Find out their negotiation styles. In a previous blog post, I described how Japanese negotiators compare to US negotiators. Knowing what their approach may be will help you to perfect your strategy.
  • Beware of stereotypes! It’s important not to assume that a person will conform to stereotypes. They may have travelled extensively, lived outside of their country for years or may simply just be different! Personality types may also influence their manner of communciation. In other words, make sure you know the etiquette of this particular culture but be prepared to have to adapt to your negotiator!
  • Be respectful and accepting. In a meeting with an Iranian lady and her colleagues, she made it very clear that when being greeted by my male colleagues, she did not wish to shake hands or touch in any other way. This may surprise some men as the handshake is a sign of respect in most commercial contexts. However, for some Iranian women, being touched by a man they are not related to or married to can be seen as inappropriate. Whatever your thoughts on this, the only thing you need to do is accept this.
  • Even expert, international negotiators can get it wrong! Sometimes, the subtleties of a culture or totally lost on anyone who is not part of it.  I have to make a conscious effort to address Germans by their title and surname and not their first name as in a professional context, this is a sign of disrespect. For many English people, this is totally ignored as we are very used to addressing people informally by their first name, in any situation.

When Things Go Wrong….

If you do get things wrong, offering a genuine apology, telling them how mortified you feel and expressing that it was not your intention to cause offence may help to repair any damage caused. It is a two way street. If you feel that the other person is disrespecting your own culture, you may wish to explain politely that their behaviour or manner of phrasing something is not usual for your culture. I did this a few years ago when a Chinese client of mine clicked his fingers to attract the attention of a waitress in a restaurant. Her irritated response shocked him; it was perfectly acceptable in China!

I’d love to read your thoughts and experiences so please leave a comment!

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