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Negotiation Across Cultures

See also: Negotiation Skills

Negotiations are rarely easy, mainly because they tend to consist of two sides trying to “beat” the other.

However, if you ever find yourself working internationally or cross-culturally, negotiating can be even harder. Why? Cultural differences.

Everything from language barriers to body language to how you meet-and-greet can have an impact on your negotiations. Should the two parties get off on the wrong foot or be working from two completely different cultural premises, there is potential for things to go wrong.

That’s why it’s important to enter such negotiations with a certain amount of knowledge and preparation beforehand. If you go in thinking that you can effectively use tactics that are specific to your country or culture, then you’re probably in for a reality check.

The Difficulties of Language

Of course, the most obvious problem with negotiating between cultures is the language barrier.

In many cases, you won’t be able to directly understand the person across from you and they won’t be able to understand you. You will have to communicate through interpreters, which can be a laborious process to say the least. It’s important to see your interpreter as an extension of yourself or your team – they need to be on your side and work to help you overcome cultural challenges.

Where a common language is spoken, usually English, this doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have problems. People speak different types of English, with differences in vocabulary and, if they are not native speakers, they tend to struggle to understand everything. It’s imperative you stay well away from colloquialisms or technical jargon as this can confuse people.

When speaking, try to ensure that you use plain, straightforward language that communicates your point directly.

Physical Cues

In the US, UK, and much of Europe, eye contact is a sign of strength and confidence. In places like South America, it’s a sign of trustworthiness. In Japan, however, prolonged eye contact can be deemed impolite. In the Arab world it’s uncomfortable and you would especially take care if working across genders.

Actual physical contact is generally something that negotiation partners in the Western world and Asia avoid. It’s seen as something personal and not for the business table. However in relationship driven or tactile cultures such as the Middle East or South America, touchy feeliness is essential – it’s all part of the relationship building process and developing trust. Should you recoil at someone patting you on the shoulder or sitting too close, it can be taken as a sign of dislike.

Where you physically sit in a room can also speak volumes in different cultures. In less hierarchical cultures such as in Canada, Sweden or Britain there tends not to be any sort of formal rules around who sites where. Cross over to places like Japan, China, Korea or India and it very different. Where you sit defines who you are and your role. Misreading these signals out of cultural ignorance can lead to embarrassment for both parties.


Westerners tend to hold time in high regard. “Time is money” is a famous American phrase which sums up the level of priority time receives in US culture. As a result, punctuality is important. Similarly in German, punctuality is near enough a religion.

Arrive late and your professional credentials can take a hit. So imagine what happens when a culture such as this works with one that sees time as much less important such as the Arabs, Spanish or Nigerians? One party sees the other as unprofessional whereas in reality they are just being normal. Any negativity that may be expressed to the late party may be interpreted itself as overly-uptight, unprofessional, unkind and downright rude. All due to a different approach to time.

Different Negotiating Methods

Every culture has a different way of viewing the world and therefore a different way of negotiating.

There are some cultures that like to have a team of negotiators rather than just a single negotiator.

Other cultures want to create a friendly relationship. That is to say, they may want to know the person with whom they’re doing business.

Others care little about the people and just want the contract signed or price agreed.

There are cultures that like to stay silent and others that have a penchant for storming out of negotiations.

Some cultures see the negotiation as a battle that must be won; others want a win-win outcome.

Understanding how to properly integrate your own personal negotiation style into a cross-cultural setting is vital for success in global markets.

Make sure you do your research before you engage in a negotiation with someone from a different culture.

The following tips should serve you well prior to any future cross-cultural negotiation:

1) Learn a bit about the culture you are going to be negotiating with – go online, read books or even better find someone from that culture willing to answer questions.

2) Understand their expectations from the negotiation process – prior to the meeting, pick up the phone or send an email with an agenda and some ideas on what you seek to achieve in order to prompt similar preferences from the other side.

3) Be clear with yourself about the stance and strategy you are going to take – if you feel you need to adopt a new strategy, i.e. being more relationship focused rather than business orientated or listening more than talking, then make sure you sit down and think it all through.

4) Don’t jump to assumptions and conclusions in the negotiation process – if someone says or does something that seems really odd, the chances are it isn’t. Think about possible cultural reasons behind the behavior and try not to rationalize according to your own view of the world.

5) If you sense confusion always clarify and re-check for understanding – when it’s impossible to work out what’s going on, put the brakes on and ask. Simply expressing your willingness to learn or show sensitivity can lead to good things.

6) Speak slower, avoid fancy language and keep it simple – always, always, always temper your language. Think how you would feel being in another country trying to negotiate in another language.

7) Use your active listening skills – it’s always a good policy to ask questions, sit back and listen to the answers. The more you let the other party speak, the more information you will have to use to your advantage. (See our page Active Listening for more information.)

8) Explain the decision making process from your side and ask for them to clarify theirs – who makes the decisions tends to differ from culture to culture. In more hierarchical countries, it is usually always the boss who has the final say. Outline how it works from your end and elicit the same from them so you are able to plug any potential gaps in terms of information or next steps.

9) Pay attention to potential gender dynamics – if you are working across cultures and genders, make sure you are fully aware of any sensitivities. For example, some Muslims tend not to shake hands with the opposite sex. In some cultures they may assume that the woman present is not of consequence whereas in reality they may be the decision maker.

10) Keep it professional no matter how challenging it may get – even if the negotiations are testing your patience always remain courteous and keep it to business. Some cultures like to test and prod the other party to gauge their trustworthiness factor. Others may take any loss of temper as disrespectful and soon kill off any further discussions. 

About the Author

Neil Payne is Marketing Director at Training South West, a company offering training courses in the UK.