May 2013 | 

Negotiating Across Borders: How to Bridge the Cultural Divide


Most advice on cross-cultural negotiations is heavy on Culture. By country or region, executives are classified according to preferences for personal space, promptness, nonverbal communication, respect, and authority. And while knowing that your Japanese counterpart may avoid conflict while your French one is comfortable issuing threats might come in handy, those potential differences are no place to start.

Wharton professor and negotiation expert G. Richard Shell notes, “You have to start with the personal. Everyone has a bargaining style, and that should be your focus at the beginning. Who is this person, what do they want, and how are they likely to try to get it?”

Shell, who leads Wharton’s Executive Negotiation Workshop, says “Stereotypes get in the way. They make you think you know more than you really do. A generalization about all Russians or all Nigerians doesn’t take into account that cultural differences are more pronounced, for example, between urban and rural negotiators no matter the country.”

Niklas Andreen, a vice president and managing director at Travelport who recently attended the program, agrees. “What makes Richard’s approach different is the focus on interpreting the lay of the land, trying to find out someone’s style. Culture is an overlay rather than a staging point. Take into account what you know of their culture, but don’t assume it applies to the person — that can lead to mistakes. Their personality might not match the stereotype. Don’t assume.”

Andreen continues, “But that’s not always easy. I negotiate with people across the world, and I as a European, like everyone else, have preconceived notions of what other cultures are like. You have to leave that out and start with the principles. First, you have to spend some time getting to know each other, observing the other person’s style. Then, don’t start with the bone of contention. Decide on some areas where you could both benefit. Whether you are from Abu Dhabi, the U.S., or South America, it is much easier to have a discussion when you start with the wider picture — areas of commonality. Then you deal with the personality and culture.”

The Executive Negotiation Workshop provides many opportunities for face-to-face cross-border bargaining, as the program typically includes executives from diverse cultural backgrounds and includes twice-daily negotiations. Reality isn’t always that simple, says Andreen. “It is almost always more convenient to email, call, or have a phone or video conference than it is to meet in person. But knowing now about the importance of getting to know the other negotiator’s personality and observing their styles, I believe the first meeting for almost all types of negotiations has to be in person.”

Email in particular, he says, can lead to many problems. “When you are communicating by email across cultures in a language that is not your first, it is complicated. I therefore try hard not to reply to an email if we disagree — I pick up the phone. It is easy to misinterpret someone in an email, and it can cause a lot of confusion and irritation. The more international your business becomes, the harder it can be to communicate. You have to start building trust, and I doubt you can do that electronically.

“Negotiation is nothing more than communication with different starting positions,” says Andreen. “Knowing what those positions are, and understanding the people who hold them as opposed to making assumptions about who they are, is how you get to a good resolution.”