Working internationally

Negotiations across cultures - 3 top factors to take into consideration

How to successfully negotiate across cultures is one of the most important aspects of international business relations, with quite high stakes!

culture in business
123rf.com/Dmitriy Shironosov

So let’s take a closer look, and see what factors should be taken into consideration when talking about negotiations across cultures! Spoiler alert: there are many. Business ethics, trust, attitude towards relationships, communication styles, time management, decision making and risk taking all have a say in how a certain culture tends to negotiate, and the list is far from complete!

Business ethics

The ethical norms of doing business deeply affect the way negotiations are conducted in a certain country, and the possible outcomes of negotiation can depend on how well the partners know each other’s values and norms. Is it considered unprofessional or even unethical to bring gifts to your business partner, or it is rather a sign of wanting to build a closer relationship and this makes it much welcome? In some countries getting closer to your partner on a personal level can be a must for a successful business deal, while in others you might seem intrusive if you approach them in a personal manner. Also, what is the accepted or/and expected way to view time? Being a few minutes late is perfectly acceptable in some cultures, but in others it is a major sign of disrespect. How formal should your vocabulary be? Again, in countries where personal relationships are valued above all, talking informally, even bonding by joking is the good way towards sealing a fruitful business deal, while in other cultures keeping your distance and being formal is the norm.

It might seem overwhelming, but being aware of all these factors is one step towards preparing for successful negotiations across cultures, and the good news is that you can gather these information, you just have to be on it, and always do your research!

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Trust

If you think about the cultural iceberg, you will find that trust and everything relating to it are factors that go way deeper than the surface. In order to understand a culture’s views on trust, you have so many things to consider: relationships, what are they looking to gain from them, and what are the core values that organize business relationships. There are many aspect to trust that you might want to consider during your business negotiations across cultures: how you choose to build it, how you express it and how you expect your partner to express it, etc.

A rather interesting and not so much talked about aspect to consider here is whether your partner is culturally more familiar with a win-win or a win-lose setting. We do say that a win-win is always best to strive for, but there are cultural differences that have a say in this question as well. If a culture is thinking more in confrontational terms rather than viewing a negotiation as a collaborative process, then win-lose might be a natural way of thinking.

This doesn’t mean that a collaboration is not possible, it just means that knowing where your partner stands can and will help you communicate in their language, address their expectations, fears even, and get you closer to build trust, and from there sealing a mutually successful deal.

Physical communication

Yet another aspect that becomes important right from the start: the non-verbal communication during negotiations across cultures. I emphasized “right from the start” because this is something that contributes to that famous first impression. The way you step into a room, you shake hands, you touch/don’t touch your partner’s shoulder, how far you sit from them, how long you maintain eye contact when speaking, etc are all so different across different countries! In this case it may be more a “what not to do” than a “what to do” question, as learning about the non-verbal communication norms of a certain culture can help you greatly in what you should avoid, and some really basic “to dos”, but only making a certain physical gesture because you read it was used in a country might not be the best idea, as you don’t want to seem “fake”. Staying authentic is a fundamental requirement during a negotiation as well as in any other life situation. But the more you understand the norms of a country, the closer you get to it, the more empathy you will develop, and certain actions, gestures even will come naturally after a while, you won’t have to make them just because it was “on the list”.

These are just a few factors that have a say in how negotiations across cultures will play out, but certainly important ones. It is always good to stay aware and invest in learning, which has no end really, especially if it comes to cross-cultural questions. Let us think again of the cultural iceberg, and remember that even if at first something seems to be a question of surface, if you start to think about it, you will also go deeper and deeper under the ocean only to find even more explanations and questions as well.

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

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At a glance

  • There are many factors to consider in negotiations across cultures.
  • In countries where personal relationships are valued, talking informally is the way towards sealing a business deal, while in other cultures keeping your distance and being formal is the norm.
  • There are many aspect to trust that you might want to consider during your international business negotiations.
  • Consider whether your partner is culturally more familiar with a win-win or a win-lose setting. This will help you communicate well and get closer to a deal.
  • Learning about the non-verbal communication norms can help you greatly in what you should avoid, and some really basic „to dos”.
  • However, staying authentic is a fundamental requirement during a negotiation. The more you understand the norms of a country, the closer you get to it.

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