Cross-cultural communication in business talks

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When preparing for cross-cultural communication in business negotiations, often we think long and hard about how our counterpart’s culture might affect what he says and does at the bargaining table.

That’s understandable. According to research published in The Journal of Applied Psychology by Leigh Anne Liu of Georgia State University, Chei Hwee Chua of the University of South Carolina and Günter K. Stahl of the Vienna University of Economics and Business, the effectiveness of your communications with a negotiation counterpart may have a stronger impact on your results in cross-cultural negotiations than in same-culture negotiations.

In their study of cross-cultural communication in business negotiations, the researchers looked at the quality of communication that American and Chinese individuals experienced during a negotiation simulation. Overall, the results suggested that pairs of negotiators from different cultures had lower-quality communications and, consequently, reached worse outcomes than pairs from the same culture.

Interestingly, the relatively small number of cross-cultural pairs who overcame such communication difficulties actually achieved better outcomes than negotiators from the same culture. Why? With communication barriers out of the way, these cross-cultural pairs capitalized on their differences to reach more creative agreements, thus gaining an edge over same-culture negotiators.

The results suggest that there are great benefits to be gained from cross-cultural negotiations in international business, but that it’s important to manage cultural barriers to communication.

If you’re like most people, you realize that cultural differences are likely to be a factor in negotiations. Books, films, television shows and personal experience help to shape intercultural negotiating schemas or templates that provide a quick, easy way of reading a foreign counterpart. Ideally, our intercultural negotiation schemas help us avoid blunders when negotiating with a foreign counterpart  and also help us understand behavior that otherwise might be puzzling.

Though intercultural negotiating schemas can be useful, negotiators often give too much weight to them, according to an article in Negotiation and Conflict Management Research reporting a study by Professors Wendi L. Adair of the University of Waterloo in Canada, Masako S. Taylor of Osaka Gakuin University in Japan and Catherine H. Tinsley of Georgetown University.

The research team surveyed American professionals who had conducted business negotiations with Japanese counterparts, as well as Japanese professionals who had experience negotiating with Americans. The negotiators were asked to reflect on how they prepared for talks with people from their own culture and how they prepared for talks with people from the other culture, as well as how such negotiations unfolded.

Interestingly, the participants typically adjusted their negotiating style too far toward the other side’s culture. Specifically, they expected their counterparts to negotiate as they would at home, not understanding that the counterparts would attempt to adjust their strategy to the foreign context as well. As a result, each side tried too hard to adapt to its stereotypical ideas about the other side’s negotiating style. Ironically, this type of cultural sensitivity often led to culture clashes.

When preparing for cross-cultural communication in business negotiations, how much emphasis should you place on culture? You don’t want to offend your counterpart with insensitive behavior, but focusing too much on culture can backfire.

Conduct background research on your counterpart’s culture, but spend most of your time getting to know her as an individual, including her profession, work experience, education, areas of expertise, personality and negotiating experience. Because your counterpart also needs to treat you as an individual, rather than as a stereotype, build in time for small talk before getting down to business.

In his research on cross-cultural communication in business negotiations, Professor Michael W. Morris of Columbia University has found that negotiators are more likely to behave according to cultural stereotypes when facing extreme demands on their attention.

In one study, participants were asked to judge an employee whose behavior had led to a negative result. When facing time pressure, American participants were more likely than Hong Kong participants to blame the problem on the individual rather than on the situation—a characteristic American negotiating bias.

Emotional stress, deadlines and accountability to others from your own culture can cause you to act in lockstep with cultural expectations rather than carefully analyzing the situation, Morris writes. Given the importance of international business communication, do what you can to reduce stress at the bargaining table, whether by taking breaks, extending deadlines or asking a third party to help you resolve any differences that arise.

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The author Katie Shonk is the editor of Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.