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Image"Cultural differences can become major stumbling blocks when negotiating with someone from another culture," says cultural management expert, Richard Cook.

Cultural differences can become major stumbling blocks in three different ways. First of all, different cultures have different understandings of what a commitment represents.

There are basic differences from one country to another in the conceptions of what you get for what you give. These fundamental differences do not necessarily affect the negotiation process itself, but often lead to lousy outcomes and ultimately to litigation. One side tends to feel cheated as the other side feels that it is asked to hold to a commitment it never made.

Secondly, cultural differences can intervene in the negotiation process itself in terms of cultural faux pas. The wrong joke leaves the other side mortally offended; the middleman being squeezed out jams the process, the bribery bid starts a row on morals and professionalism and leads to fundamental distrust. What is "normal" at home can be repulsive abroad and vice versa. Is a verbal agreement binding? And so on.

'Cultural differences can intervene in the negotiation process itself in terms of cultural faux pas....What is "normal" at home can be repulsive abroad and vice versa.'

When there is unshakeable good will and strong interests linking both parties, they mostly manage to iron out these irritating episodes, but in difficult negotiations, such incidents can lead to a total breakdown in communication. Finally, we find that cultural differences can be deliberately used as negotiating tactics by one or both sides of the negotiation.

Fundamental Misunderstandings with Regardsto "the deal"

This is probably the gravest cultural misunderstanding (in terms of outcome) and the most difficult to deal with. Ultimately, negotiation is about striking deals. Deals are about commitment: the agreement you reach now will be followed by future actions. The nature and the extent of these actions are deeply culturally determined. Written contracts should to some extent specify these obligations, but even the practice of contracts is culturally determined, dependent on whose legal system you are taking into account and so forth. Commitment can be likened to a "feeling of obligation" towards the other party. The extent of this obligation can vary widely from one country to the next.

So, when negotiating with someone from another culture ask yourself:

Q. What is more important to them: the deal or the relationship?

If we can indulge in a generalisation, we can say that Anglo cultures tend to focus on the deal, and changing conditions can render the deal invalid (sorry, old chap, I'm sure you'll understand) whereas other cultures put greater stress on the obligations of the relationship.

ImageQ. Do they differentiate between professional role and private person?
The very clear distinction we find in most northern European cultures between 'professional' and 'private' tends to get blurred in Latin cultures.

Commitment and obligation tends then to be towards the person rather than the role. This can be surprising, as business partners may think it perfectly acceptable to ask for personal favours in a professional context.

This might put the other party in an embarrassing situation since his or her company might consider personal favours as a form of bribery and therefore unacceptable. Conversely, one may be offended by a point blank refusal to a perfectly "normal" request (Would you hire the son of this good friend, I owe him a favour), and this can also lead to a breakdown in the relationship.

Q. What is their attitude towards rules and contracts?

Are contracts binding or only indicative? Are rules respected or generally ignored? Different cultures give different emphasis to written rules and contracts (as opposed to personal obligation or necessity).

In some cultures, particularly from Germanic influence, a rule is rarely fixed. For others, it is there as a basis for improvisation. The way cultures look at rules tends to influence their understanding of contracts and commitments.

Behaviour is Relative to Context

Latins are not necessarily more emotional; they just talk louder, make wider gestures and use more facial expressions. It just so happens that if a northern European were to start talking loudly, making wild gestures and grimacing we could quite safely assume that this person was getting emotional. These different behaviours have no meaning themselves - they only mean something relatively to the cultural norm.

This makes it particularly difficult for the negotiator abroad because out of his or her cultural context most "signs" he or she will give away are bound to be misinterpreted. There is nothing to do about it, except knowing it and being careful in a specific situation. The key thing is not to offend the locals, so we need to look out for signs of puzzlement and distress in our hosts, and simply stop whatever we are doing or saying and wait for them to recover their balance.

'We need to look out for signs of puzzlement and distress in our hosts, and simply stop whatever we are doing or saying'

The cultural faux pas only endangers the negotiation process if it is pursued relentlessly. People will allow a certain margin of doubt for "foreigners" but this margin need not be too wide. Being offensive once or twice "by accident" is no problem, or even the occasion for a establishing some companionship - but being continuously offensive is bound to affect the negotiation.

To some extent it is wise to do less rather than more - even at the risk of being considered a "coldfish". Some cultures, such as the traditional British culture, are naturally at an advantage because their usual restraint at home gives them less occasion to offend abroad. One might find them a bit cold and withdrawn, even maybe arrogant, but seldom outrightly abrasive - which is what ultimately is going to cause a real problem.

This article has been taken from the following sources, and edited by Richard Cook: Successful International Business Negotiations by Robert T. Moran and William G. Stripp and The Negotiating Game by Chester L. Karrass

Richard Cook, a fully qualified language and cultural management consultant, has been working at organizational, managerial and personal levels for international clients for the last twenty-one years. He has lived and worked in North and South America, Japan, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. This has provided him with a full understanding of the complexities of communicating across cultures and disciplines. He is also a qualified Master NLP practitioner. richardcook@global-excellence.com

© 2009 Global Excellence Ltd, All rights reserved.

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