International Negotiations: One Language, Many Cultures

Differing expectations of how talks should be conducted ultimately lead to irreconcilable differences in international negotiations. Both sides meet with a fixed mindset shaped by their own business culture. At the same time, globalised business life often feels like we all act in a single, worldwide English speaking culture. How can we make international negotiations more successful?
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Everything seems quite simple: you are sitting opposite a foreign business partner who speaks excellent English, has travelled the world and appears open and friendly. All the preliminary talks have gone very well. You have enjoyed dinner together the night before. But on a crucial day in the conference room, the negotiations falter, the gap widens – and suddenly it seems a very long way until a deal can be struck – if ever at all.

At what point did things get out of hand?

In most cases, different expectations of how talks should be conducted ultimately lead to irreconcilable differences in international negotiations. Both sides meet with a fixed mindset shaped by their own business culture.

At the same time, globalised life often feels like we all act in a single, worldwide international culture. We drink the same soda pop, watch the same movies and drive the same cars, and the high-street shops also look confusingly similar. A good English level, the global language of business, often gives the impression of a common basis that does not exist.

This is especially true for everyday business interactions. It is all too easy to forget how strongly each of us is influenced by culture and how deep the differences can run in more challenging situations, such as international negotiations. We can hardly imagine that our behaviour is suddenly met with massive irritation by our counterpart.

So let’s have a closer look at what can lead to cultural misunderstandings in international negotiations time and again?

Factual Orientation Or Cultivating Relationships?

In Anglo-Saxon and German-speaking countries, for example, business meetings, presentations, and negotiations are predominantly fact-oriented. The goal of the talks is quickly brought up; people get straight to the point. On the other hand, in Southern Europe, South America or Asia, an excellent personal rapport with one another is what counts most. Here, business is only done with friends. People talk to each other to establish common ground before getting down to business or even trying to negotiate a deal. And that can take a lot of time. It is not unusual to have five or even ten preliminary talks before the subject of negotiation is approached.

Reactions vary accordingly when international negotiations stall. While the Anglo-Saxon or German-speaking side tries to get the talks back on track by presenting more and more facts and arguments, the more person-oriented negotiating partners feel that the general relationship has to be rebalanced first. They need a solid basis of trust for a deal to be reached. Irritated by the other side’s quick advances, they try to improve the relationship level through deeper going conversations and many joint meals or activities so that everything can be put back on an even keel. However, the fact-oriented Americans or Germans interpret this as an evasion of trivialities and punish this “lame effort” with ignorance. It won’t be easy to bridge these very different approaches to bring talks back on track.

More Data Or More Personality?

The differences between factual or personal orientation also show in the preferred communication styles. Data and facts are presented clearly and without frills, if the matter is in the foreground. Fact-oriented negotiators often come across as arrogant and know-it-all due to their straightforward communication style.

If the focus is more on personal relationships, well-honed speeches are seen as crucial in international negotiations. It is essential to shine linguistically as the facts do not speak for themselves. 

Hierarchy And Experience Levels

In international negotiations, partners of the same or a similar hierarchical position should sit opposite each other. High-ranking Asian business partners, for example, will feel embarrassed if they have the impression that they are negotiating with “inexperienced junior managers”. From an Asian perspective, experience and rank are linked to age. A mature manager is automatically seen as having the right skills and knowledge. In contrast, younger negotiators who have been brought in because of their specific expertise, for example, may not be taken seriously because they appear too young regardless of their qualifications.

Decision-making Process

There may also be cultural differences in international negotiations regarding where and when decisions are made. In some countries, the aim of a negotiation is to reach an agreement. In other countries, it is common to only exchange points of view, and the final decisions are then made behind closed doors.

How To Prepare For International Negotiations

Despite all cultural differences, business partners in international negotiations always have one thing in common: the interest in achieving a good result. It is only how this is achieved that varies significantly in different business cultures worldwide. Therefore, it is evident that it makes little sense to rely solely on one’s familiar negotiation style in international negotiations. Follow these tips instead:

  • Prepare yourself for international negotiations. Learn about your business partner’s communication style. Pay attention to nonverbal signals such as facial expressions and body language. Find out if joint business meals or get-togethers outside the conference room are seen as part of the negotiation process or not. Our country-specific training videos provide you with basic knowledge about communication and negotiation styles in different countries. 
  • Enter international negotiations with patience and realistic expectations. This applies above all to the time frame: Progress often comes slowly. Allow enough buffer time. Also, discuss a generous time frame with your superiors to not feel unnecessarily pressured. 
  • Meet your counterpart with openness and respect. If the other side needs it, try to create a good relationship basis for your international negotiations at all times. Look for common ground. The famous “small talk” and joint business meals help build a sustainable personal level. Every coffee you drink together brings you one step closer to your negotiation goal. However, the individual counts too! Your foreign business partners are not just a product of their cultural background. Try to learn as much as possible about their personality. After all, the shortest way to bridge cultural differences is still from individual to individual.
  • If facing business partners with a sombre facial expression and a painfully straightforward communication style, try not to feel offended. You may feel rejected personally, but they are simply separating between factual business matters and personal relationships, not mixing business with personal life. Try some small talk before and after negotiations; it may just take a little while for them to get used to your more personal way. Don’t push things too far by expecting long joint dinners if your business partners would like to call it a day. Going home or back to the hotel does not mean that they don’t like or trust you. They are just not used to spending time with business partners outside the office. 
  • Take special care when criticising or rejecting a negotiation point. If you don’t agree with something, you should communicate your disagreement without a direct “no”. Simply make a counter-proposal or give a few hints. If your negotiation partner comes across as very critical and aggressive, consider that this may be due to a different communication style. Set your boundaries and guide your business partners to a more pleasant tone. Talk about finding the right level of communication so that both sides feel comfortable.
  • In any international negotiation, it is essential to find out who has the ultimate decision-making authority and whether managers with decision-making authority are sitting at the negotiating table at all. Be clear about the decision-making process and differing expectations.
  • If your or your negotiator’s age and level of experience could be questioned, it is helpful to emphasise in advance that the selected person has exceptional know-how in the subject matter and has been given all decision-making powers. Otherwise, the foreign partners always expect that in the end, a higher-ranking boss will intervene to bring the deal home. If you find a negotiation partner too young and inexperienced, consider that there might be good reasons why they have been trusted with these negotiations.

All in all, don’t fool yourself into thinking that a good level of Business English automatically means everything is just like it is in your own country. Instead, be open-minded and ready to do things differently. Surely, this is the best recipe for successful international negotiations.

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