Negotiating Effectively Between Cultures - part 1 of 2

Big Mistake

14 years ago, when I first started running workshops on the subject of cultural awareness and negotiating across cultures, I made a big mistake.


Current thinking, principles and practice in negotiating internationally

Big Mistake

14 years ago, when I first started running workshops on the subject of cultural awareness and negotiating across cultures, I made a big mistake.

I decided that it would be helpful to put together a series of about 30 individual ‘cultural profiles’, one for each of the countries that my participants were most likely to need to interact with and negotiate. I did most of my research from books and the Internet.

I will never make that mistake again. But why did my good intention backfire?

Because, the Internet is both a great source of information, and at the same time, an abundant and unlimited source of cultural misinformation, half-truths and misdirection. It also quickly becomes out of date because cultures are evolving and changing fast as the world increasingly globalises. If you do your research through books and the Internet then please view what you read through a critical lens.

Secondly, some commentators and observers extrapolate a few experiences into broad and unhelpful generalisations that can mislead you into making your own false assumptions, sending you into a minefield littered with stereotypes, misinterpretations, traps and cultural gaffes.

Finally, there is no such thing as a trait that applies to all people from a defined nation, country, region etc, as we will discover when we explore the multiple sub-dimensions of culture below. We will also explore how culture goes much deeper than just 'national' culture.


Fascinating, complex & constantly evolving

With such a vast, fascinating, complex and rapidly evolving subject area where do we start?head

Well, if you are serious about negotiating across cultures, or if more broadly you simply have to work with people from cultures different from your own, even if they are sitting in the same office as you, then the subject is too important to neglect and we have to start somewhere.

In part 1 of this 2-part article I will endeavour to distil some best practice principles for working and negotiating across cultures to help you to succeed.

As mentioned above, I will not be attempting to describe the ‘characteristics’ of different cultures. Instead, I will bring together some of the best thinking and ideas of respected researchers, writers and practitioners in the field, and I will pepper this with some of my own experiences of working and negotiating internationally for more than 25 years.

In part 2 we will explore 22 important cultural sub-dimensions.

I trust you will find this subject as fascinating as I do.


Cutural Iceberg model

icebergThe focus of this article is not about ‘negotiation skills, tools and techniques’ per se – for that you should attend a negotiation skills workshop - but rather how negotiations are contextualised within the far broader, deeper and complex subject of culture, cultural diversity, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and behaviours.

It is the ‘behaviours’ that we see on the surface, in terms of rites, rituals, statements, individual’s conduct and actions, which in broad terms can be summarised as… ‘the way things are done around here’.

An excellent, and well-regarded metaphor for thinking about this is the ‘Cultural Iceberg’ model, first described by Edward T. Hall in 1976, (see diagram on the right).

On the surface, above the ‘water line’, we see important cues and clues to culture in, for example:

  • Environment; e.g. how offices and other buildings and spaces are designed
  • Physical proximity; how close people like to be to one another in business and social settings
  • Emotional closeness; how ‘open’ people are with one another in terms of what they say
  • Dress sense and degree of formality
  • Thinking style and attitudes in relation to things such as time, rules and hierarchy
  • Specific behaviours that perhaps appear different or ‘alien’ to our own


For example, in Japan we may observe rituals such as bowing, presentation of business cards, deferring to a more senior person, or a reluctance to speak out and state categorical personal views in a public setting. These are the things that we see and hear on the ‘surface’, but they have their origins at a far deeper level.

In Japanese society it is generally accepted that deference to hierarchy, formality and saving face are very important. These are just three examples, there will be many more, but for the purposes of illustration we can already see how these deep-seated values, beliefs and expectations are reflected above the surface in the rites and rituals that are commonly observed.

Bowing shows respect, and the depth of the bow correlates with the degree of respect being conferred to the other person and to the difference in status and/or hierarchy.

Presenting business cards, and the ‘rules’ that are associated with this, such as presenting the card with two hands, holding it so the writing is oriented the correct way  for the recipient to read, the meticulous reading of its contents, the polite comment about some aspect of job title or education, and the care taken with where the card is then placed, are all surface indicators of the deeper Japanese culture.

In my role as an international negotiation skills trainer, when working in Japan, I have personally witnessed such things. Most starkly, I observed the surface behaviour of members of a group of participants being reluctant (or even unable) to speak out and state their personal views in front of others, particularly more senior members of staff.


There are of course ways of tactfully, professionally and effectively dealing with such situations; however, that is not the purpose of this article. My message is that it is only by being curious about such things that a deeper understanding can surface as to why people are behaving in the way that they do.

When you understand the reasons behind what you may initially perceive as ‘strange’ behaviours (strange to you), you place yourself in a far more empowered position to react and respond appropriately, and therefore more effectively.

You can use the cultural iceberg model to help you to understand how a behaviour that you have observed in a culture different from your own translates to a deep assumption or value.

You can also use it the other way around, bottom up, and choose a deep assumption or value that you think is generally applicable to a certain culture, and work out how that translates into behaviours that you see on the surface.blocks

The arrangement of office space, furniture, doors and windows in China, for example, is a surface reflection of the deep beliefs in patterns of Yin and Yang and the flow of energies (Chi) that can have positive or negative effects.

In some Middle East countries deep values and beliefs of the role of men and women in society feed through to what we see on the surface in terms of the division of labour in organisations and the percentage of women in leadership positions in business.

When you can connect surface behaviours with deeper beliefs, values, attitudes and expectations you are far closer to having a true understanding of what is important to that culture and why people behave the way they do. You are also far less likely to make inaccurate and unhelpful assumptions, and so more likely to become a better negotiator as a result.


Perceptions, filtering, stereotyping & generalising

Stereotyping is crass, naive and disrespectful. It only serves to reveal you as an ignorant person who badges people with unhelpful, and probably wrong labels. Not all ‘Germans’ lack a sense of humour, for example, not all Australian men are chauvinistic, not all Americans are 'loud mouths' and not all Chinese suffer from lactose intolerance.

You will notice from just these four examples that in each case the stereotype is of a negative nature i.e. either undesirable or critical. Of course positive stereotypes also exist, however these can be equally dangerous. Not everyone in Sweden treats women as equals, not all English people are polite, not all black people are good at physical sports and not all gay people are sensitive.

We also need to be aware of how we can unconsciously use selective perception and filter the information we see around us. If we meet one person who seems to fit a cultural stereotype, it reinforces those ideas, while we tend to ignore others in the same group who do not fit the stereotype, as well as people in different groups that do fit that stereotype.

So if we must avoid stereotyping, what can we do? Do we simply approach every cross-cultural interaction or negotiation with a totally blank sheet of paper and maybe a blank mind?

No. There are some ‘generalisations’ that can be helpful. Generalisations are based upon commonly agreed characteristics and behaviours of a culture. Generalisations give you a starting point from which to explore further. For example, most people would agree that relationships and family are important to Brazilians and many people in the Middle East, most Germans do have a strong respect for process and punctuality, and Nordic states do tend to place far more emphasis on the importance and position of women in society - the statistics bear this out.

Stereotypes are overgeneralisations; they are blunt and often involve assuming a person has certain characteristics based on unfounded assumptions. Stereotypes lump everyone together, labelling them all with a characteristic that is given little thought and which is not open to debate. We typically stereotype those whom we do not understand or about whom we have no knowledge. Stereotypes can easily lead to prejudice and result in some forms of discrimination.

Generalisations, however, are not set in stone, and they do give us a good place to start our curious exploration from. If you are going to meet and negotiate with a German business person, for example, you would be wise to start with the assumption that structure, process and punctuality are likely to be more important to this individual than to a person from a Greek island.


Underestimating & overestimating culture

Horatio FalcaoHoratio Falcao, Professor of Decision Sciences at INSEAD, has some useful insights to offer on the subject of inter-cultural negotiations, including the danger of making assumptions, and how a person can both underestimate the dangers of cross-cultural negotiation, and at the same time over-estimate cross-cultural negotiation.

How can this paradox of both underestimating and overestimating cross-cultural negotiations exist, at the same time, and within the same person?

How we underestimate the importance of culture

When we fall into the trap of stereotyping, or ‘lumping together’ people from a certain national culture, disregarding the wide range of cultural dimensions that go way beyond just national culture, then we are severely underestimating the importance of culture.

To use one of Falcao’s examples, when people say… “How do I negotiate with the Chinese?” they grossly underestimate the depth and complexity of culture by simply labelling a massive group of people, or just one individual, as simply being ‘Chinese’.

Is there such a thing as a ‘typical Chinese’ person?

Not if you dig deeper - and it does not have to be that deep either. It can simply be a case of considering whether your counter-party is a young Chinese person or a far older one; did they grow up in the city or the countryside; if the city, was it somewhere like Beijing (the administrative and government centre of the country), or the far more commercial environment of Shanghai, are they male or female, did they study abroad, have they travelled or never left China, poor, rich or part of the rapidly rising middle classes?… the list goes on.

The point is that there are many different cultures that go beyond just being 'Chinese'.

As professional negotiators we need to be aware of the many sub-elements of culture so that we can stand a reasonable chance of understanding how the person thinks and communicates, and hence, to be able to negotiate with and persuade that person better.

If we don't take these sub-dimensions of culture into account then we are ‘underestimating’ the role of culture in life, in business and in cross-cultural negotiations.

Later in this article we will explore many different sub-dimensions of culture that go beyond life experiences, upbringing, gender, age, education, religion etc, but for now, let’s take a look at how we can paradoxically, at the same time as underestimating the importance of culture, we can also overestimate it.

How we overestimate the importance of culture

An example of overestimating the importance of culture is when you fall into the trap of assuming too much because you share a national culture with another person.

In my own professional field I am often faced with a mix of workshop participants from a wide range of cultures; sometimes I can have a group of 12 people, each from a different home country. If I were to look down the list and spot someone who also originates in and lives in the UK, where I come from, then the mistake I risk making is to immediately jump to the conclusion that we will be so alike, we will think the same way, share the same sense of humour, understand each other and get on well. If I fall into this trap I risk overestimating our cultural proximity, making sweeping assumptions, and in so doing I underestimate the risk.

In terms of negotiating with this person I may fail to think about, mention and explore the full range of issues and opportunities, and so run the risk of not making the best of the negotiation with the consequence that we both ‘leave money on the table’.

I try not to do this.

On the same participant list I may see people from cultures with which I have not interacted very much, for example Chile, South Korea, Turkmenistan or Cuba. With these other cultures I am likely to have ‘big eyes and big ears’; by which I mean I am going to be ultra careful that I pick up as many signals as possible and pay attention to as many details as I can. In this case, paradoxically, I run less of a negotiation risk as the anticipated and actual differences make me work harder at the table.

And don't leave money on it!


What is a cross-cultural negotiation?

First, we have to ‘put aside the flags’; or at least expand our thinking about what we mean by culture, by broadening and deepening the definition of culture beyond purely thinking about national origin, and to include multiple sub-dimensions.

I live in the south of the UK, and even though I inhabit a relatively small island, I am different in many respects to my fellow UK residents.

For a start I only share the same gender with 49% of the UK population, and if you want to explore cultural differences then just think about the differences between how men and women think and behave, what is important to them and so forth. I risk over-simplifying here, but many readers will be able to identify with this as a useful starting point – a generalisation.

I am also 51, which poses certain ‘challenges’ when it comes to negotiating with people from different generations – most notably, with my children or elderly parents. If you think it’s difficult negotiating in business then you only need to ask a parent of young children which they would find easier!

In terms of personality profile we are all different. Admittedly, it is possible to categorise people into certain broad personality ‘types’, but even then, the differences in thinking style, communications preferences, extroversion/introversion and expectations about how quickly things should happen can vary wildly; and these are only four dimensions!

So, the point is we need to think beyond the confines of national identity and consider all of the sub-dimensions of what it means to negotiate across cultures.

We also need to approach every encounter and negotiation as though it is a cross-cultural negotiation.


What are the sub-dimensions of culture?

Leading academics and researchers, e.g. Geert Hofstede and Fons Trompenaars, have attempted to codify culture in terms of a number of dimensions.

Their work has been widely quoted in literature, business periodicals and is often referred to as part of cross cultural negotiation workshops and business in general. However, the world is moving on, and as cultures evolve we find that it is not sufficient to simply rely upon five, six or seven cultural dimensions. Some of the original research is now 40 years old; some dimensions have become less meaningful or important and others have risen to the surface. As an example, I would cite ‘the treatment of women in society’ as a very important cultural dimension in 2016 that was not so prominent in the work of cultural researchers 20-30 years ago.

We only have to look at the vast differences in the way women are regarded and treated in different cultures across the world to see that this is a cultural dimension that refuses to be ignored. One only has to watch or listen to the news to uncover differences in values, expectations, attitudes and behaviours that are quite literally poles apart.

In business there are many examples of how women are treated with less respect and regard in some cultures. Even when a visiting negotiating team from another country, the Netherlands or US for example, is led by a woman, it is not uncommon in some countries for the host nation to continue to primarily address the lower ranking men in the room.


On a lighter note, what about the cultural dimension about use of personal space?

When preparing for your business meeting or negotiation you may not consider thinking about what expectations your counter party has with regards to what constitutes an appropriate personal distance between you. However, you only have to break this rule once to immediately get a sense that ‘something is wrong’.

So, to ‘expand the pie’ in relation to the range of cultural sub-dimensions that are important in cross-cultural negotiations, consider the expanded model below.Continuing with the example of different expectations of 'personal space', if you make the other person feel uncomfortable by invading their personal space (getting too close to them and/or engaging in unwelcome physical contact), or conversely, creating too much ‘distance’ by standing or sitting too far away for their comfort, or by sub-consciously backing off when they approach, then you may have the best business proposition on the planet yet still not clinch the deal.

The cultural dimensions model below does not pretend to be fully inclusive. However it takes findings from a wider range of researchers in an attempt to provide a more complete model to work from in 2016 and beyond.

Most of these sub-dimensions of culture are self-explanatory. However, I have chosen the two dimensions of ‘Control over the Environment vs. Fatalism’, and ‘Explicit vs. Implicit communication’ to illustrate.

The remaining 20 sub-dimensions are explored in part 2 of this article.




Perceived control over the environment vs. fatalism

Fatalism is a belief that events are determined by fate. People who subscribe to fatalism believe that they have to accept the outcome of events, and that they cannot do anything that will change the outcome, because events are determined by something over which they have no control – a higher power, for example.

Cultures that tend to adopt a more fatalistic view of the world include those from the Middle East, India and Pakistan. It is common in Pakistan, for example, to believe that a person's time of death is fixed and cannot be avoided. This can lead to the idea there is no point taking steps to avoid death because it will come at the appointed time, no matter what you do.

Fatalism can portray itself in business and negotiations by apparent apathy and/or avoidance.

In the Middle East I have personally struggled to hold career advancement conversations with individual managers because of the prevalence of the belief in “Insha’ Allah”, which means "God willing" or "if Allah wills".

This perceived lack of ability to influence events even extended further in a discussion when I asked one gentleman if he would apply for his boss’ job if it became available. His response… “There’s no point, his brother will get it anyway!”, adds a further cultural sub-dimension not included in the model above, about the degree of nepotism and corruption in some societies.

In contrast, the North American culture tends to believe that it is possible to influence events, or even if outcomes and results cannot be changed, there still exists the freedom to choose how to respond, without being compelled to react in a certain way by forces beyond their control.

I remember witnessing a North American’s frustration when at the end of day 1 of a lengthy negotiation he said to his Saudi counterpart… “OK let’s meet again tomorrow at 9am”. The response of “Insha’ Allah” left him wondering all night long if the meeting would occur the next day. It did happen, though it did not start until 10:30, and of course the negotiation was interrupted periodically for prayers and accompanying ablution rituals.


Explicit vs. implicit communication

Implicit communication focuses on the ambiguous areas of gestures, vocal tones, actions, and sometimes what is not said rather than what is - it depends a great deal on what is 'implied'.

Implicit communication can be hard to interpret by some people, or even be misinterpreted, as the recipient can be left confused about the message intended.

Explicit communication on the other hand deals with what a person writes or says directly. It can be very clear, direct and straightforward such as in… “No, I am sorry, but I am not going to do that.” A person who favoured implicit communication may instead say… “That would be difficult”, “Maybe” or “I’ll try.” A Chinese participant on one of my Advanced Negotiation Skills workshops a few weeks ago told me that in her experience in China, “Yes” means “Maybe” and “Maybe” means “No”.

Implicit communication occurs more often in what are referred to as ‘high-context cultures’, in which people leave many things unsaid. The context, made up of the environment, the situation, and the parties involved, carries messages that complement the spoken word and make up for the things that are left unsaid. Indian culture is a high-context culture, as are the cultures of many Asian and Arab nations.

In low-context cultures, such as the US and much of Europe, communication is more explicit and so things are often spelled out more clearly and directly. To negotiators from high context cultures, overt statements might be perceived to be a little ‘blunt’, and questions too penetrating and direct. There is much room for misunderstanding and frustration within negotiations and business in general if attention is not paid to this very important cultural sub-dimension.

In a related sub-dimension, it is common in the Nordic culture to want to avoid conflict. This is in stark contrasts with the Dutch, for example, for whom direct and assertive communication is not only displayed, but also expected from others. I have worked with thousands of Dutch people and I find it both refreshing, and interesting, that they are proud of being direct in their communication style and in being perceived to be so.

Good for them!


How to use the model

To work and negotiate successfully with people from different cultures use the expanded range of cultural dimensions in the following way:

  1. Taking each dimension in turn, consider in very broad terms where you think the culture ‘stands’ with regards to that dimension – some will be easier to identify than others, as illustrated by the examples above
  2. Talk with others who have had experience working with people from that culture and ask them which of the cultural dimensions they have generally found to be most important and relevant when negotiating in that context - show them the model above to provide a framework for your conversation as they may not know where to start, or may make some important omissions
  3. Especially talk with others who originate from that culture or who have spent time living and working within it in recent years, and who can also ‘view’ the culture from the perspective of your own
  4. Beyond national cultures, consider, and make a few notes about the culture of the ORGANISATION that you will be negotiating or communicating with; consult others who have had dealings with the people in the counter-party’s organisation
  5. Find out as much as possible about the specific person or persons with whom you will be negotiating; what information do you or others already have, what is their background, their personality style and communication preferences etc…
  6. Taking all of the above into account, plan your approach accordingly
  7. Have ‘big eyes and big ears’ during your meetings and other interactions
  8. Reflect on what happens and adjust your approach (if required) appropriately for the next interaction
  9. Learn and have fun in the process!


We conclude part 1 of this 2-part article with 10 top tips to further improve your cultural awareness.

Remember, to also read part 2 to explore the remaining 20 cultural sub-dimensions.




10 tips for improving cultural awareness

goldfishReading and researching about culture and its various dimensions is important. However, putting it into practice is different. So, what practically can you do to further broaden your cultural awareness, understanding and effectiveness?

By following my top ten tips below, some of which repeat and reinforce messages conveyed above, you are less likely to find yourself feeling like a fish out of water or committing cultural gaffs and blunders during your negotiations.


1. Develop an unquenchable attitude of curiosity

When you see behaviour that appears unusual, meaningless or even bizarre to you, do not immediately judge or reject it. Find out why that person is behaving in that way, what is behind the behaviour, and what they’re trying to achieve. If you aren’t curious then it leads to disinterest, which could then be perceived by others as disrespect. Also, remind yourself of how boring the world would be if we all had one global, uniform culture!

However, in negotiation situations some people do consciously behave in certain ways in order to achieve an effect or some sort of advantage. For example, pretending to get angry or deliberately playing ‘poker face’ to keep information and their reactions from you and to keep you guessing. These are negotiation tactics and are not related to cultural understanding – contact me separately if you want information on how to counter such negotiation tactics

2. Expose yourself

At a practical level you can do this by travelling extensively, engaging with local people outside of hotels, eating in local cafes, bars and restaurants, walking the streets, taking public transport rather than taxis, and getting off the ‘tourist trail’. This may feel uncomfortable at times, because you are actively pushing yourself out of your ‘comfort zone’; yet, that is where learning occurs, and rather than seeing it as inconvenient or uncomfortable, re-frame it as exciting or an adventure, and you are more likely to get a more genuine impression of the real culture.

3. Learn

Before visiting a country or interacting with people from a culture different to your own read up about the nation’s history, heritage and traditions (which do not change), its values and behavioural norms. Talk to people who have visited, worked in or worked with people from that culture to learn what works and what doesn’t– remembering to keep an open mind.

4. Don’t take everything at face value and don’t assume

Just because the ‘foreign’ immigration officer speaks to you by saying, for example, “Give me your passport” or “I need documents” (without any softening pleasantries such as “Please” or “Thank you”), it does not mean she is being rude, it may just be that she has only a functional grasp of the English language and/or she works in a culture that values explicit communication.

5. Consider whether you are going to tolerate or accept differences

You may find yourself tolerating differences in the thinking and behaviour of others, but that is not the same as accepting those differences. When we move to acceptance we are deepening our understanding, feeding our motivation to learn, and moving more towards equality, respect and effective collaboration.

However, in some situations it can be difficult even to tolerate some behaviour e.g. people who regularly spit in the street or belch loudly after a meal. Whilst spitting in public is ‘normal’ behaviour in countries such as China or Turkey, in some societies it is regarded as a gruesome, disgusting anti-social behaviour that can spread disease.

True tolerance and acceptance works both ways, and so those who, for example, spit in the street in their own country should accept that when visiting countries that are significantly culturally different they should adapt their behaviour and understand why it is important to do so. They will also avoid creating difficulties for themselves and so it is in their interests to do so.

6. Look for similarities

It is human nature to notice things that are different, whereas things that are familiar or similar can just pass us by. If you look for ways in which you and a person from another culture are similar, aligned in your thinking or simply share the same passion for something, then this can form the basis of resolving differences and building greater mutual understanding.

In negotiations, it could be something as simple as you both agree that you want to reach a mutually acceptable deal. By starting with that shared objective then you will stand a better chance of achieving it as you both want the same outcome.

7. Whenever possible work and negotiate face-to-face

In-person face-to-face meetings are hugely important in effective cross-cultural collaboration and in building trust between two or more parties. This is not always possible, though with the prevalence of video conferencing, Skype and other video-based technological communication tools we can get close to it. Telephone conversations are better than email. However, without the visual clues and cues a lot of meaning and information can be lost between parties if they rely only on audio.

8. Adapt your language and content

Avoid using slang or colloquialisms or expressions peculiar to your own culture, and be aware that words can mean different things to different cultures. For example, and please excuse me for using some rather ‘robust’ examples in this list… “pants”, “pissed”, “fanny pack”, “fag”, “gas”, “trunk”, “hood”, “flat” and “yard” mean very different things to Americans vs. the British.

Equally, watch out for inappropriate jokes or humour. As a Brit’ I particularly have to be careful that I don’t slip into the trap of using irony (saying the exact opposite of what I really mean, as in… “Hmmm that’s an ‘interesting’ shirt and tie combination”), using double meaning such as… “Your proposal is outstanding”), double entendre and innuendo– all of which are common British habits. Humour can assist in oiling the wheels of interpersonal communications, so don’t eliminate it, just be extra careful when using it in cross-cultural situations.

When working with people for whom your language is not their native tongue, speak slower, user shorter sentences, re-phrase if you think you are not being understood and use examples to illustrate the meaning of what you are trying to convey.

Finally, on the subject of language, be aware that natural topics of conversation to you may be meaningless, or even a turn-off to people from other cultures. Not everyone is fanatical about football, and in Singapore talking about the weather is meaningless as it’s pretty constant all year round.

9. Be forgiving of others’ behaviour

In 99% of cases people commit cultural blunders unwittingly. They do not set out to offend. Therefore, the best thing you can do in such circumstances is not to take unacceptable actions as an insult, but rather to use the occasion to educate the other person so that they don’t make the same mistake twice. If roles were reversed, and you were confused in another culture, you would probably appreciate someone taking the time and trouble to tip you off about what is and what is not ‘done around here’!

Don’t beat yourself up if you make the occasional blunder. Learn from it, be determined not to repeat it, and use your own sense of humour to retain a sense of perspective.

10. Explore multiple cultural dimensions

Use the ‘cultural dimension model’ to identify those sub-dimensions that are most important and relevant to the situation you face. In particular, in business and negotiation, focus on communication styles, how information is shared, different perceptions of time, the importance of relationships, power and hierarchy structures, the degree of formality and how decisions are made.


Click 'Next' to read part 2 of this 2-part article.