International negotiation

frédéric vendeuvre Published by Frédéric Vendeuvre – 29 June 2021

When we think of international negotiations, we tend to think of the cultural differences between peoples or “national” cultures. Limiting yourself to that aspect neglects the role of personal culture, gender, education, lived experience, regionalism—and the weather!

A good negotiator is attentive to these differences but does not use them as their sole frame of difference, which could lead to an egregious error. We should note that these differences are fading with the rise of globalization, and expatriation, along with internationalized management and educational methods.

We are still able to identify a few criteria related to cultural phenomena and assess their influence on how negotiations are conducted.

The goal is to better understand how other people think and communicate, so that you avoid blunders and misunderstandings.

We have divided them into 10 categories:

1. The goal of negotiations: An individual win or a team win?

Most negotiation training recommends seeking a win-win solution, an approach that comes naturally to certain cultures and less so to others. When asked the question, 100% of Japanese negotiators said they hoped to find a positive outcome for both parties, for example, but only a third of Spanish negotiators responded in the affirmative.  So you need to incorporate these differing goals into your negotiation preparations.

2. Style: Formal or informal?

The way we dress (tie or no tie?), speak to one another, address others using titles, and interact also differ from one country to another. Germans are more formal than Americans. The Japanese consider it disrespectful to be addressed by their first name, while Latin European cultures view this as a sign of affinity. Remember to be careful not to fall into stereotypes. It is wise to take a prudent approach, to avoid rubbing people the wrong way, but that shouldn’t represent a barrier or undermine the relationship.

3. Communication: Direct or indirect?

Certain societies favor direct communication, while others prefer a more roundabout or figurative style. The sometimes difficult relationship between the French and the English can be explained by these contrasting modes of communication. For example, the French use denotative communication while the English use connotative. Where a French person will say, “That’s wrong,” while an English person will only venture, “I’m not sure that I agree.”

4. The value of yes

For the Japanese, it’s inconceivable to say “no” to a person’s face. The English will start a long message on a positive note before expressing their reluctance behind the customary “However.” Whereas the French and, to even greater degree, Eastern Europeans, may feel compelled to start with “I don’t agree” and then seek to find a solution. The NO is viewed in these countries virile and the sign of an assertive personality. As such, you need to factor in the sender’s intentions when interpreting the message. It is best to focus on the message after the “However” when corresponding with the English, for example, and not to take a brutal rejection from a Russian or Polish negotiator as a definitive no.

5. Relationship with hierarchy: A leader or a team?

As previously noted, in negotiations it is always important to be familiar with the other person’s organization and to understand their decision-making process. Cultural origins influence these factors. Some cultures favor individual decision-making while others decide as a group. Asians, especially the Japanese, favor consensus and collegial decisions. The difficult-to-translate Japanese term nemawashi denotes an informal process for gradually laying the groundwork for a major change or project, by speaking with the people involved and attempting to gain their support. It’s a practice that’s central to Japanese culture in decisions where it’s difficult to achieve agreement.

The Americans, on the other hand, have no trouble placing decision-making power in the hands of a “supreme leader” who is backed by a team but calls the shots. Western countries value the leader’s vision, while Eastern cultures believe that a good decision must result from a collective consensus-building process.

The number of people directly involved in discussions depends on organizations and the decision-making process. It’s not rare to see 10 representatives attend negotiations in China, while a single person will represent the company in Europe.

The number of representatives and the method of decision-making are also related to the importance of hierarchy, which is greater in China and India, for example.  Conversely, some Western leaders will seek input from their teams to show that they’re above the fray and to avoid sticking their neck out.

6. Relationship with time

Whatever the circumstances, it is best to know how to manage time during a negotiation. Whichever party feels the least time-related pressure will be in the driver’s seat. Alongside the tactical aspect of time management, it is also useful to understand if your counterpart needs more time or is comfortable with fast-paced discussions. Certain cultures value a slow approach while others aim for optimal time management and productivity. The Americans are known for sealing deals quickly, whereas the Japanese are prone to drawn-out negotiations.

The relationship with time also plays out in how punctuality is interpreted. The Germans are punctual while Latin European cultures take a more laid-back approach.

7. Emotiveness: High or low?

Showing or concealing one’s emotions is a matter of upbringing but also culture. Social and educational aspects being equal, the Americans and the French will let their emotions show more easily than their English or Asian peers. The latter view this “emotional display” as indecent while the former see their counterparts’ natural reserve as hypocritical, insincere or detached.

8. Consensus-building: Top-down or bottom-up?

Certain societies prefer to lay out the general terms of an agreement before drilling down on the details. Others arrive at an agreement through a series of point-by-point compromises. Some observers regard the French as preferring to start by looking at the big picture and defining the broad strokes of the agreement, while the Americans string together successive trade-offs and compromises that culminate with an overall agreement. They focus on one point at a time—price, lead times, quality, etc.—and the sum of these parts constitutes the final agreement. Certain studies place France, Argentina and India in the top-down category and Japan, Mexico, the USA and Brazil on the bottom-up side.

9. Relationship with the body: Physical contact or not?

During one of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first official visits to Germany, the French president was seen taking Angela Merkel into his arms to kiss her, and the surprised chancellor recoiling. Some cultures consider physical contact as encroachment of one’s personal space. In others, it’s natural, a sign of affinity.

Despite our globalized world and the custom of shaking hands, the spontaneity of this gesture is influenced by our relationship with physical contact. Latin Europeans and South Americans will add a warm embrace, while Asians will shake hands hesitantly, with a slight bow as a sign of respect.

This does not reflect excessive affection or coldness, just the influence of tradition.

10. Risk-taking: High or low?

Some cultures are more reluctant to take risks than others.

The Hofstede model of culture differences provides a good example. France’s values are much different than other developed countries—Northern Europe, the UK and the USA, but also Latin Europe.

The respect for incumbent power and authority—and acceptance of the resulting inequalities—are much more prominent than in other major developed nations, placing France closer to the Indian model. Individualism is much less present than in other developed countries. The masculinity index is low, indicating a propensity for strong common values between men and women and less competition among men. The uncertainty / avoidance index (ability to protect oneself and avoid risks) is among the highest of the countries studied.

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