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When negotiating with someone we have to start with understanding their objectives, and how they will react to the process of negotiation. Only by understanding their cultural background can we start to really understand them, even before taking their individual characteristics into account (psychology).The first rule of negotiation is to understand the other person. Agreement, unless under duress, requires mutual understanding.

"Opinions are based on habit and what
you conceive to be convenient to you."


the importance of cultures

It is a fact, generally acknowledged, that people are in part, at least, a product of their culture. That culture may be national, as in the mainstream business culture of the US, regional as in the case of Sicily, it may be a sub-group within a nation; French bureaucrats, a language group in Belgium, or it may transcend national boundaries for a UN employee working in Geneva.

The culture, or cultures, that we exist in gives us our sense of social well-being, our certainties and prejudices. They determine our attitude to gender, to politics, to marriage, to children, to religion, to foreigners; in short culture colors our view of the World we live in. Cultures are more than national identity, race or gender, they are a set of ideas and values shared by a group of people,and include usages, manners, customs, mores and morals (per William Graham Sumner). As such they can be transmitted to newcomers, be transplanted to new territories and last for long periods of time. Cultures also change in the continual process of adapting to change, but the changes normally strengthen cultures and make them able to survive; it is however easy to mistake an adaptation for a fundamental change. The strength of cultures runs very deep and is often the primary determinate of human behavior.

Cultures are not value free and are not all equal, this may not be something you feel comfortable with, but when you are negotiating you are dealing with the realities of a situation, not with what you would like to see. Some cultures have transmitted values which have given their participants a clear economic and social advantage. Francis Fukuyama in Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity [1995] says that "A thriving civil society depends on a people's habits, customs, and ethics - attributes that can be shaped only indirectly through conscious political action and must otherwise be nourished through an increased awareness and respect for culture" [page 5]. Fukuyama also notes that "The increasing salience of culture in the global order is such that Samuel Huntington has argued that the world is moving into a period of 'civilizational clash,' in which the primary identification of people will not be idealogical, as during the cold war, but cultural." The extreme example of a society with negative values was recorded in The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull where he noted the behavior of the Ik people; Turnbull gives examples of the deterioration of societal values, as food became scarcer and scarcer and the people starved to death. Fukuyama notes that a higher level of trust in a society improves its stability and has economic and social benefits, he also distinguishes between societies such as Italy and China which are family-oriented and societies like Japan and Germany which are more easily able to subordinate individual interests to the larger group. See also TRUST.

The British Expedition to China 1792-94

In The Collision of Two Civilizations, The British Expedition to China 1792-4 Alain Peyrefitte writes that, "There is perhaps no more striking instance of the clash between advanced and traditional socities than the pround encounter, at the end of the eighteenth century, between Britain and China - the first country to be gripped by the industrial revolution and the most brilliant of all civilizations rooted in custom." He adds that there, "was a uniqueness to the encounter between two societies that, having undergone separate development for centuries, considered themselves the world's most civilized - and not without good reason. This made their confrontation especially exemplary, lending it the purity of a laboratory experiment." The mission ultimately failed because of Lord Macartney's failure to use traditional Chinese forms of address to the Emperor, i.e. to "kowtow". There are few clearer examples of negotiations between two such different cultures, or of the vital importance in addressing questions of local behavior. You may not have to deal with the Emperor of China, but do you understand the cultural drivers of the people you would like to negotiate with? Any student of cross-border negotiations will enjoy this book.

Albion's Seed

I will spend some time considering another book on cultures, David Hackett Fischer's "Albion's Seed, Four British Folkways in America" (Oxford University Press, New York, 1989 & 1991) because the author so clearly identifies the nature of cultures, or "folkways" as he refers to them, and their ability to persist over long periods of time. Elsewhere on this Site there are frequent references to the historical background of countries, when considering how you should deal with their cultures, "Albion's Seed" underlines the importance of understanding where people have come from and what their underlying values are. In his conclusions Hackett Fischer also points out that cultures will use violence in order to protect themselves, something that everyone dealing with political and social conflicts in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and elsewhere should remember. It is said that he who forgets history is doomed to repeat it.

In historical terms the transfer of English culture to New America in the 17th and 18th centuries has had a lasting impact on world history. The first English colony, at Jamestown Virginia, was a joint-stock company, the spirit of commercial enterprise was implanted from the start of American history. David Hackett Fischer, in "Albion's Seed, Four British Folkways in America" identifies four separate British cultures, or "folkways", which were transferred to North America. The English Puritans who moved from East Anglia to Massachusetts at the beginning of the 17th century (The Pilgrim Fathers), the movement from the South of England to Virginia of royalists affected by the English civil war, the migration of Quakers from the North Midlands to the Delaware at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th and finally the 18th century migration of over 250,000 people from northern England, Scotland and Ulster, this group settled in the backcountry of the colonies, along the Appalachian mountains and in Georgia. Hackett Fischer argues that these separate folkways developed into regional cultures, and says that "each regional culture developed its own institutions of order and violence which have persisted powerfully through time." (page 890). He notes that homicide rates today correlate more closely with cultural regions of origin than with any other factor.

In New England, despite the changes in ethnic origins compared with with the 17th century, levels of social violence remain low. New England has little tolerance for the use of violence and punishes violent crime severely, New England also supports gun control, in contrast the Southern states have a different attitude to violence and gun control. Hackett Fischer notes that in order "to change a culture in any significant way, one must transform many different things at once - no easy task" (page 896). He notes that social institutions tend to perpetuate themselves that they have their own means of doing so, and are the instruments of continuity in a cultural system. In addition he remarks on the importance of elites, they dominate every cultural process and become the "governors" of a culture in both a political and a mechanical sense; "Every culture might be seen as a system of bargaining, in which elites maintain their hegemony by concessions to other groups" (page 896). Hackett Fischer also adds that, "Finally, when all else fails, the ultimate instrument of cultural persistence is physical force, which every culture must sometimes use to maintain itself" (page 897). He finishes his book with the conclusion that "Each of these four freedom ways still preserves its separate existence in the United States. ... This diversity of libertarian ideas has created a culture of freedom which is more open and expansive than any unitary tradition alone could possibly be. .. in time, this plurality of freedoms may prove to be [the US's] most enduring legacy to the world" (Page 898).


Ideas which influence behavior and attitudes are also known as menes - menetics is the study of ideas as a form of infection of the mind. Geert Hofstede used a similar concept in his book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind where he saw that cultures provide the program for individual behavior.

Destructive Cultures and Terrorism

Cultures may be negative, that is promote negative and destructive values, cultures are not value-neutral, they are not all basically the same under the skin. Nazi Germany is the classic example of a negative culture which defined itself by violence to Jews and other states, and by the subservience of the people to the will of the leader. It finally collasped as the result of the violence used against it by its enemies, see Berlin: the Downfall, 1945 by Antony Beevor . See recent studies on Nazi Germany including The Third Reich, A New History by Michael Burleigh, The Hitler Myth by Ian Kershaw and Hitler's Willing Executioners, Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Goldhagen's book had its critics arguing that the Germans under Hitler were not uniquely evil, but nothing in human history equals the Nazis' attempt to wipe out a whole race of people. Horror stories from Stalin's Russia, Serbia, and Rwanda can do nothing to reduce our revulsion at the Holocaust. Recent accounts of negative (evil) systems include We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families by Philip Gourevitch, which deals with the Rwandan genocide in 1994 when the government called on the Hutu majority to murder the Tutsi minority.

Experience post-September 11th with Islamic terrorism has also again convinced the West that not all sets of values are equally positive. Also see our page on Terrorism.

The importance of culture

The point of this page is to stress the importance of culture, which may vary even within a country, in negotiating any complex deal you need to understand the values of the people you are dealing with, even if you do not accept their values yourself. Negotiation requires dialogue, even at the most basic level where the negotiation is hostile, "winner takes all", you need to understand the other side, his strengths and weaknesses. If you wish to negotiate a "win-win" deal which creates a positive alliance between the parties, which is what we aspire to, then you need to spend even more time in understanding cultures.

International Cultural Differences

The Economist 2 January 2003 reported that in December 2002 the Pew Research Centre published the broadest single opinion poll so far taken of national attitudes in 44 countries. The Economist noted that "But America's position is odd. On the quality-of-life axis, it is like Europe: a little more “self-expressive” than Catholic countries, such as France and Italy, a little less so than Protestant ones such as Holland or Sweden." The report also noted "America's position on the traditional-secular axis. It is far more traditional than any west European country except Ireland. It is more traditional than any place at all in central or Eastern Europe. America is near the bottom-right corner of the chart, a strange mix of tradition and self-expression." The complete report is available from the Pew Research Center at:

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