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cross-border negotiation - culture

In looking at the effect of culture on negotiations it is easy to understand its importance in influencing the way in which people view the world. We may see the Italians as more relaxed, the Germans more precise, the Americans as more driven. If we are French we mistrust the English, if English we mistrust the French (the effects of the 100 Years War live on) and so on.

If you really want to see the stupidities that can arise from cultural differences go and look at Israel and Palestine, two groups of highly intelligent people, both with a long and distinguished history, with a strong religious and family life - and they are in the process of trying to destroy each other. The same thing is happening in other "trouble-spots" around the world. The inability to tolerate differences, or claims to "rights" for one group over another in the name of race, religion, tribe, colour, language reflect an age than we all think should have passed long ago, but then it explores in our faces. So we have situations where Jews are discriminated against, where Jews discriminate against Arabs, where Arabs discriminate against blacks and so on. Its easy to say a curse on all your houses, but you will not get very far unless you attempt to understand the basis for the irrelational actions, and the ability of human beings to create such situations. The dangers come when people begin to use their hatreds in order to define their own identities. This is want has happened with such groups as al-Qaida, who define themselves by their hatred of non-Muslims, and of Muslims who do not share their views.

However it is also necessary to understand that cultural differences, especially where language and history differ, may include different views of desirable objectives (India and China for example are keen to maximize the use of labour where possible, unlike the US), the organizational structures may vary enormously from those the negotiator is familiar with (in Germany labor unions normally participate in key corporate decisions, via the supervisory board), legal systems may vary greatly, and behavioral norms may be the opposite of those normally experienced by the negotiator (in Japan it's OK to sleep during meetings, but don't blow your nose in public, and be very careful to look at business cards which are handed to you).

Firstly we should acknowledge that most human beings share the same concerns; their children, their spouse, their boss/employees, and the economic situation. Frenchmen will decry the effects of crime, along with Brits, and Americans. All parents are not sure that their children will do what they wish and so on. By focusing on our common humanity you can connect with the people with whom you are negotiating; we are all brothers and sisters under the skin. The paradox is that, although we have a lot in common with people in other countries, other countries are different. A Frenchman was recently found guilty by a Scottish court of hitting his son, and English plane spotters were also found guilty in Greece of spying (plane spotting is unknown in that country); in both France and England there has been disbelief that these cases ever came to trial, let alone succeeded.

Cultural differences can have a dramatic effect on negotiation. The distribution of influence (power) may involve different networks and players from those the negotiator is used to. The culture may have a centralizing and Statist tendency (as in China), or it may be decentralized and business-orientated, as in the US. The networks involved in the negotiations may include groups which you never meet face to face; civil servants, the members of the Saudi Royal family, party members, members of Congress or of Parliament, State Senators, diplomats, shareholders, crime-syndicates and the wife of the company President.

There are cultural taboos; Muslims and Jews don't eat pork, Hindus don't eat beef, in Eastern Asia you don't show the sole of your shoe to someone, pointing can be a problem, as can eye contact, standing too close or too far away, there are a thousand and one things to remember. Some cultures value punctuality and deal-focused meetings, others have little sense of the urgency of time and need to first develop relationships. Anglo-Saxon societies value lawyers and certainties in details, in other societies there are few lawyers (Japan) and the long-term relationship is the important thing. It is also important to understand to what extent the other side are negotiating as a group, rather than via one man (the normal Anglo-Saxon model).


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