Is Culture Important for International Negotiations?

Globalization has brought new variants in the form of local “cultural” attitudes into the mix, although much of what passes for local culture is often based on fragile national stereotypes. It is asserted that the Japanese, Chinese and Arabs prefer to “establish personal relations first and then slowly move on to business”; Americans are overly fast negotiators – “wham, bam, it’s a deal, Sam”; Italians, Greeks and Spaniards “take their time and are always late”; Germans and Scandinavians are “very formal”; Dutch and Danish “speak several languages”; Brits are “overly serious”; and the French are, well, “French”.

Of course, these stereotypes are mostly wrong, and the “cultural relativists”, who base their detailed “research” into local customs or attitudes on where negotiators were born, may be lumping together quite dissimilar characteristics and undermining the certainties of their assertions.

For example, is a Belgian national of Flemish or Walloon extraction; is a British citizen from Scotland, or England, or Jamaica; is an American from Louisiana or Brooklyn? This applies across the entire range of national origins, all of which may affect their mannerisms, and so on. These differences within national “cultures” may be important, as may whether they are university educated or of the self-made variety – in either case they may be no slouch when it comes to getting a “deal”.

Moreover, because the research data on which cultural relativists make assertions about how the stereotypes negotiate are usually based on questionnaires (“Would you cover for your brother over a road accident?”, “Would you tell your boss that you disagreed with her decision?”, and so on) and not on direct observation of how people actually negotiate, they are unreliable guides for how they negotiate in business.

This is not to say that cultural differences are unimportant.

They can be important, as are the differences within cultures: not all Dutch negotiators like their country, the Netherlands, to be called Holland; not many Scottish negotiators like to be told they come from a country called England; and similarly, across the world.

Often, the culture of organizations override the ethnic cultures of its employees, as anyone who has to deal with companies such as Exxon and Shell will attest to.

But awareness of good manners – nobody ever got a worse deal by being courteous – is good advice for any social or business interactions with other people. However, the key factor when negotiating is to be aware of, and to practice, appropriate negotiating skills. Know when to talk and when to keep quiet; know when to say “maybe” and when to say “no”; know when to ask a question and what to answer when asked; and above all know when to prepare – before you meet them – and not when engaged across the table with negotiators who look you in the eye and think they have your measure.