Cross-cultural negotiations

Negotiating across cultures is a at best a challenge, and at worst, a nightmare.  Even if you are in a homogeneous culture, the negotiation process is full of communication pitfalls.  Hand gestures, posture and tone of voice all impact the way your message is received.   

These nuances and the difficulties they produce grow exponentially as you negotiate across divergent cultures.   As you begin a business relationship with a partner from a different culture, do your homework to understand how you can better send and receive communication cues that are important to business negotiations.

How personal is this relationship?
For a typical North American or European business person, this seems like a silly question.  It’s business.  There is no personal relationship.  Their business relationship model focuses strongly on the facts and data.  When working in an Asian or Latin American culture, this model changes completely.  The relationship you build with your business colleague is as important to the negotiation process as the data in-hand.  This is why so many Western business people are confused by the complexities of Asian business or frustrated by the amount of chatter that happens before getting down to business in Latin America.

Should I speak, draw or write?
Different cultures place different value on how facts are presented.  When negotiating in a North American or European culture, you will find a strong emphasis on the use of facts and statistics.  In Latin American countries the emphasis shifts to providing the same data in a more visual way through graphs, maps and charts.  The information presented is the same; only the method changes.

Is this low-context or high-context communication style?
Low-context communication involves a large amount of explicit detail provided within the message.  The United States is the most extreme example of a low-context society.  American business contracts are long, involved and full of legal-speak.  American streets are well labeled with street signs and numbers that spell out your exact location in writing.

High-context cultures are very different.  Much of the information is implied.  The cues that you receive may not come from signs.  Instead they come from the environment around you.  Contracts are not as explicit, but instead rely on the relationship developed.  Culturally the importance of writing everything down is not a high value; a conversation and mutual understanding suffice.  If you have ever tried to find your way through unmarked streets in Tokyo, you will know that Japan is one of the most extreme examples of a high-context culture.

When does “yes” really mean “yes”?
In the Western world, the word, “yes” in business negotiations usually means, “yes, I will.”  However, Asian cultures will often use the word, “yes” to mean that the message recipient understands what you are saying, not that they agree with it.

The word, “maybe” also has a completely different meaning in an Asian context.  For example, if you ask a business colleague to complete a task for you, the individual may respond by saying, “That may be difficult.”  Instead of the low-context response of saying no, it is a high-context and indirect response that allows the message sender to “keep face” by not being told no in a direct manner.

Do your homework!
As you enter into negotiations within a cross cultural world, do your research.  Your understanding of how culture affects communication will be an essential part of reaching an agreement with your cross-cultural business partners.