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Negotiating with people from other cultures.

With businesses becoming global and increasing numbers of international mergers and acquisitions taking place, it probably won’t be long before you find yourself having to negotiate with people from other cultures. Going abroad to seek new customers or business partners is the obvious example, but receiving potential clients from overseas or even doing business with other parts of your own company – if it’s multinational- will involve you in cross-cultural negotiations.

Remember that it’s not up to the other person to adapt to you: not attempting to understand and take account of the other party’s cultural background may be felt as an insult. On the other hand, most people will notice if you make the effort

And give you generous credit for it.

The best way to prepare for cross-cultural negotiations is by living in the other culture, or by finding a reliable local mentor or partner. However, if you’re not

Able to do this, there are things that you can do to improve the probability of success and minimize the risk of mistakes. Careful planning and attention will pay dividends

Step 1. Investigate social conventions

Whenever you are travelling to on your business trip, finding out more about the social conventions of a country or region is invaluable.

Obvious differences in cultural style are easy to spot, but it’s thee more subtle distinctions that are usually cause problems. For example, unintended rudeness or failure to observe the politeness can quickly make the negotiations competitive. There are a small number of general areas in which these subtleties usually occur, so observe these things carefully when you’re in the country, and investigate them as much as you can beforehand.

a) Meeting and greeting procedures.

Watch how these work. For example, you need to think about:

 who introduces whom

 whether gestures such as bowing are appropriate

 whether you’re expected to shake hands, and if so, how

 whether women shake hands

 whether there are set greetings and responses

As a general rule, hold back. It’s wise to be guided by your hosts and avoid any physical contact until you’re sure it’s acceptable. While most people appreciate any attempt you make to speak their native language, don’t be too enthusiastic in adopting local customs – it may make some cultures suspicious and feel that you’re mimicking them, rather than trying to match your approach to fit theirs.

b) Watch you (body) language!

Remember that a lot of the non-verbal clues we give to our colleagues or friends when we communicate with them won’t always travel that well to other countries.

While a smile can rarely go wrong, bear in mind that some cultures:

 find the ‘OK’ sign (that is, thumb and forefinger closed together to make a circle) offensive.

 also find the ‘thumbs up’ sign offensive

 think that standing with your hands on your hips means that you’re angry

 are less offended by a lack of personal space than others. For example, you may find that people may come and stand right up close to your face while they’re talking to you. This can be disconcerting if you’re not expecting it.

 prefer a kiss on both cheeks to a handshake.

 value silence more than others. In the West, we often feel duty-bound to fill any gaps in a conversation with chit-chat, whereas in Japan, for example, silence is important and designates ‘thinking time’, In the context of a negotiation, saying too much is a bad more. Say only what you really need to.

 are reluctant to make eye-contact as they feel it’s insulting. This is particularly the case among some Latin American and African countries.

 get to the point more quickly than others. In some countries, there may be a long exposition to the negotiation that you may find frustrating id you’re in a rush. Be patient, however, and adjust to a different pace.

 are offended by people who chew gum or keep their hands in their pockets during conversation.

 are much more tactile than others

 won’t sit with their legs crossed (as many people do to show they are at ease) as this may mean that the sole of their shoe is pointing at someone. This can be considered extremely rude and should be avoided.

c)ideas about time

Observe local customs about timing of meetings, particularly:

 the rules about appointments. Do you turn up on time (Europe); before time (China); or a little after time (Africa)?

 How time is used – rigidly or flexibly? Does a half-hour appointment mean exactly 30 minutes, or anything up to an hour?

 how your host will indicate that your time is up. How and when you can politely take your leave?

d)The role of women

Some cultures have embraced the role of women in business more than others, and may have very clear conventions governing gender relationships. You need to know:

 how women’s roles are defined in the country you’re visiting. Don’t comment on this, whatever your views may be.

 the level of women’s involvement in business

 any ‘rules’ covering relationships between men and women at work and socially.

e)Eating and drinking etiquette

In many cultures, communal eating may have its own set of symbolic social rituals. Sometimes these are based on religion, sometimes on historical tradition. If you’re invited to a meal, find out beforehand from a reliable source what the etiquette is, particularly:

 what form the meal will take, that it is formal or informal

 customs such as washing, which hand to use when eating, formal ceremonies, if there are prayers before meals and so on.

 what people normally drink with their food (whether alcohol is permissible or not)

 whether it’s polite to eat / drink everything or whether you should leave

something on your plate

 whether business is discussed over meals

 any dress conventions



Watch what others do and be guided by them. Don’t be offended if people learn over and help themselves from your plate- this is polite in some cultures.

f) Gifts

This can be a sensitive area: some cultures will tend to perceive a gift as a bribe, others as an embarrassment. Therefore, find out:

 what is the attitude to gifts – are they accepted or expected?

 the type of gift that is appropriate. Be particularly careful about gifts to one’s host or hostess if invited to someone’s home

 customs for receiving gifts yourself

This is one of those areas where no one will notice if you get it right,

but everyone will be aware if you get something wrong.


Don’t make jokes until you’re sure you understand the jokes made by the other party. Be aware that irony or sarcasm often isn’t picked up easily by people who don’t share your first language, so don’t take refuge in either of them too much.

If the worst comes to the worst and you feel you’ve made a gaffe, don’t try to ‘rescue’ the situation by making another joke. It is best to just move on and pick up the threads of your earlier conversation or start a new one.


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