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Developing Your Cross-Cultural Negotiating Skill


Michael Kublin, Ph.D.
Michael Kublin, Ph.D., Professor, University of New Haven, West Haven, CT 06516, 203/932-7208.

79th Annual International Conference Proceedings - 1994 - Atlanta, GA

We live in a global economy. Increasing numbers of U.S. companies have become involved in international purchasing. Consequently, it is vital for American purchasing managers to know how to deal with foreign sellers. Each culture has its own distinctive approach to the exchange process. Differences exist regarding what should be discussed and in what order, how formal the meetings should be, who should attend, and the role of a contract. This paper looks at some of the differences in negotiating behavior that exist among different societies. Emphasis is placed on the differences in communication styles, though other topics are also discussed. Suggestions are offered on how to improve one's cross-cultural negotiating skill.

The most obvious difference that exists when business is done internationally is that the other side may not speak our language. Although English is spoken by millions of foreign business people, many more do not know the language. Many foreigners speak English, but feel more comfortable conducting business in their own language.

Generally, though not always, sellers try to speak the language of the buyers. Even so, it is helpful to know a few words in the sellers' language. The attempt to speak a few words will be taken as a sign of respect for their culture and will also suggest that you are contemplating a long-term relationship. Socializing is a very important part of doing business in many cultures and getting to know people is much easier if you can speak a few words of their language. Furthermore, just knowing a few words will make your trip abroad so much more pleasant. You will not be totally dependent upon English speakers.

Before we can do business effectively across cultures, we must first get in touch with our own business values and attitudes. We must also be fully aware of how we behave in a purchasing environment and how we expect sellers to behave. We have all become accustomed to a particular style of interaction, a style that is based upon our culture, our personalities, and our experiences. But people from other cultures have learned other behavior. If we are to deal with them effectively, we must alter our expectations. They are not going to behave like Americans just because we want them to or because we insist upon it. In order to hold our expectations in check, we must clearly understand what they are.

Self-awareness may help us avoid the self-reference criteria trap. It is a mistake to interpret other people's behavior in terms of our own values. Many Arabs, for example, make little effort to be punctual. Americans who have done business in the Middle East sometimes complain that Arabs are even more casual about time than Latin Americans. When Arabs arrive late, Americans assume that they are not eager to do business. In reaching this conclusion, the Americans have interpreted the Arabs' behavior in terms of the American value towards time. For us, time is of the essence. In the United States, lateness often does suggest indifference. But Arab values are different from our own and showing up late usually does not have any negative implications.

There is always a tendency to assume that other people share our values. This is always dangerous, but no where more so than when we do business with people from another culture. We are especially prone to conclude that other people think the way we do when they look and behave like us. Many, perhaps most, foreign business people dress in the Western style and speak English. Indeed, this may be why they were chosen to sell to us. Like salespeople everywhere, it is their job to make the purchaser feel comfortable. It is so easy to assume that these people are just like Americans except that they speak English with a foreign accent and have a strange last name. Underneath the superficial similarities may lurk startling differences.

Abroad, especially in developing countries, Americans may encounter a casual attitude towards contracts. Americans believe in the sanctity of contracts. If we sign our name to a contract, we believe that we are legally and morally obligated to abide by the terms even if we should change our mind. In many other societies, however, business people believe that the terms of a contract should be changed as the situation changes.

The foreigners with whom we do business may be far more or far 1ess willing to take risks than we are. The behavior of the Japanese can be particularly confusing to us. On an individual basis, the Japanese are usually extremely cautious. As members of a group, however, they can sometimes be quite daring, some would say foolhardy. Japan's consensus decision making and collective responsibility is well known. Much less has been written about the collective irresponsibility that sometimes takes hold of a Japanese company. Organizational psychologists have identified a phenomenon in the United States which they have named "the risky shift." Under certain conditions, a group is likely to undertake more risky projects than would individual members of that group. What is startling about the Japanese is the gulf between individual conservatism and group boldness.

Many Americans believe the French to be arrogant and condescending, and some doubtlessly are. Sometimes, however, we misunderstand their intentions and their attitude because of the way they go about initiating a relationship. We Americans take it for granted that the best way to establish rapport with another person is to identify areas of agreement and similarity. When we first meet someone, we generally shy away from issues that might be controversial.

The French often begin by searchings for areas of disagreement, but not because they are enamored with differences for their own sake. After all, a certain meeting of the minds is necessary in order to do business. The French find different perspectives and attitudes stimulating. They love to debate, though only with knowledgeable and thoughtful people. We find the French to be deliberately argumentative and disdainful of contrary viewpoints. Why are they baiting us and why are they having such a good time doing it? Many years ago, I spent a harrowing afternoon crossing swords with a French bureaucrat. While I was recuperating later that day, I received a call from a friend. He told me that he had just spoken with the Frenchman and that he had a splendid time. When could we meet again?

It is far more difficult to read the body language of a foreigner than most people realize. As with the spoken language, body language varies from one culture to the next. Sometimes, the same message is expressed by different body language. Americans signify "no" by shaking their head from side to side. But for a Bulgarian and many South Asians, this same gesture means "yes." On the other hand, the same body language can mean different things from one culture to the next. The American's A-Okay sign, for instance, is an obscene gesture in many foreign countries.

When doing business with foreigners, one should usually gesture sparingly. It is so easy to be misunderstood. Be careful not to interpreting other people's motives and attitude's in terms of your culture's body language. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Part of the problem, of course, is that many of our conclusions are made on a subconscious level. For instance, each society has its own particular comfort distances--the distance at which people sit and stand from one another. The appropriate distance depends, above all, on the relationship. Mexican men, for example, tend to stand or sit very close to other men. Most Americans would regard this behavior as aggressive. But it isn't, not in the context of Mexican culture.

Regardless of what people actually say, we reach conclusions about their meaning depending upon how loudly or softly they speak. Within our own culture, loudness (up to a point, of course) is regarded as a sign of assertiveness, whereas a soft voice is regarded as a sign of meekness. Southeast Asians tend to talk softly. We assume that the low voice means lack of confidence. They see it as good manners.

Eye contact also varies from one culture to the next. To Americans, strong eye contact means that the other person is listening and also that he or she is telling the truth. But the Japanese believe that firm eye contact is rude and an invasion of privacy. In the Muslim world, women will often avoid making eye contact when speaking with a man because it is considered sexually provocative.

Cultures have different ideas about the degree of physical touching that is permissible in public. Many Americans are too quick to touch perfect strangers. Such behavior makes many foreigners very uncomfortable. Most Asians, with the possible exception of Koreans, are loath to touch people they do not know, especially across the sexes. On the other hand, Arab and Mexican men are far more tactile than Americans. When dealing with people from other cultures, it is probably a good idea to avoid touching them, even in the most innocuous fashion. If they touch one another a great deal, it is generally a bad idea to imitate them. You may be regarded as patronizing.

How can we avoid the trap of interpreting other people's behavior in terms of our own values? obviously, we must try to learn as much as we can about the other culture. In addition, try to step back, figuratively speaking, and ask yourself what is the assumption underlying your interpretation of the other person's behavior. Have you evaluated the behavior in terms of your own values? You still may not understand the foreigner's behavior. But, at least, you'll be less likely to misinterpret it.

Many cultures place a premium upon maintaining harmonious and smooth relationships. Thais and Indonesians, for example, will frequently say "yes" merely to be polite. It is a way of indicating that they are listening to you. "Yes" does not necessarily mean that they agree with what you are saying. Furthermore, they will often express their own position in the most ambiguous terms. Depending upon the situation, we may conclude that they are being deliberately deceptive, they are confused, or they do not know how to express themselves clearly in English. Sometimes, of course, these interpretations may be correct. At other times, they may use veiled phraseology as a polite way to turn us down. They may think that they have been very clear and would be surprised to learn that they have not communicated their intentions. Their oblique response was merely a way of avoiding a direct refusal.

Compared to most other people, Americans are quite informal. We are quick to use first names and to ignore titles, even when speaking to total strangers. We eschew ceremony and are very open about personal matters. Americans use informality to put people at ease. This may work in the United States. Abroad, our informality may actually be counterproductive. Many peoples, for example East Asian and West Europeans, are more accustomed to formal relationships. They may regard our informality as a sign of disrespect. French or German managers who have worked side by side for decades will call one another by the last name. Germans believe that formality enhances communication. We may see them as brusque.

When meeting a foreigner for the first time, act more formally than you normally would with Americans. If need be, you can always become more informal. It is much more difficult, however, to move from informal to formal.

Americans generally conduct business on the basis of impersonal and objective criteria. Nevertheless, we like to give our business relationships the facade of friendship. We believe that doing so facilitates the business interaction. So, for example, we will say things like "If I can ever be of any help, call me." or "The next time you are in town, let's get together." When we hear such comments, we know when the other person really means it. Foreigners often do not. So be careful what you say.

Many foreigners are bewildered by our friendly manner. They may see our friendliness as insincere or manipulative--which, by the way, might be the case. In many cultures, friendships are formed slowly and involve enormous obligations. People from these societies wonder how we can talk of friendship so early in the relationship.

In many countries, people insist on developing a personal relationship with one another before doing business. They want to determine whether or not they can trust the other person. They also want to see if they will feel comfortable dealing with the other person. After all, they are generally thinking in terms of a long-term relationship. Many Americans regard this prolonged getting-to-know one-another process as a waste of time. But personal ties are vital in many parts of the world. Also, once a basis of mutual trust is developed between the parties, business can often be conducted far more rapidly than in the United States.

As the buyer, you will generally have the leverage to speed up the getting-acquainted process. Still, it is usually unwise to rush things too much. A solid relationship sometimes can offer you more protection than an ironclad contract. And remember, relations have to be nurtured. Stay in contact via the telephone and through the mail. Most of all, visit often.

Age and gender roles vary from one culture to the next. ours is a youth-oriented society. Many other countries accord age far more respect than we do. They believe that with age comes wisdom. Business people from such cultures may find it hard to believe that a young purchasing manager has extensive authority. And they may wonder how much expertise the person has. There is a wonderful story about a Mexican who came to Florida to do business and was greeted by a young American executive. After they exchanged a few pleasantries, the Mexican said, "It was nice meeting you. Now introduce me to your daddy so that we can discuss business."

In many countries, particularly in traditional societies, women play a minor role in business. You are unlikely to encounter a women manager in Mexico, Japan, or Saudi Arabia. Businessmen from these countries often have some difficulty dealing with American businesswomen. If an American company chooses to send a woman to one of these countries, it should make it clear that this person has decision-making power. otherwise, the foreign company may ignore her.

Some readers may object to the generalizations in this article. But if you have spent enough time in a country, you will encounter the same behavior appears again and again. Still, there will always be exceptions. Even people who normally fit the national pattern, may suddenly display contrary behavior.

The key is to remain tentative. Generalizations help us understand our environment and in that sense they are fine. A problem occurs when generalizations turn into stereotypes. Unlike generalizations, stereotypes make no room for exceptions and as such inhibit our ability to see individual diversity.

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