Culture Shock

If you don't learn to bridge the gap, you may risk alienating potential business partners.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the July 2003 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Did you know that in Japanese, there are 19 different ways to say "no"? In a world increasingly dominated by international, multinational and transnational corporations, culture plays an important role in negotiation. The literature on this subject is large, fascinating and goes far beyond curious questions of international etiquette.

For example, the Japanese eschew direct confrontation, preferring an exchange of information. Russians love combat; their very word for "compromise" is borrowed from another language. Spanish negotiators are individualistic; Koreans are team players. Nigerians prefer the spoken word, Indians the written one. Asian languages are high in context, so you must pay attention to inflections, body language and what is not said. Latin American cultures are physically demonstrative. And we Americans alienate everyone with our impatience and obsession with getting things done . . . fast, fast, fast!

Sensitive negotiators allow for these sorts of differences. Take a tip from Stephen Covey, the author of The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People (Simon & Schuster): "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." For one thing, your opponent may not be speaking to you in his mother tongue. The subtleties of negotiating may be lost in translation. Make sure you are really connecting, and be especially clear, lest you talk past each other.

Moreover, those who negotiate outside their culture regularly should study the etiquette, ethics and attitudes of their opponents. It's just part of learning more about how the other side actually negotiates. If you know what to expect when you sit down to bargain, you will dramatically enhance your ability to get what you want. Let General George S. Patton lead you to the negotiating table: "I have studied the enemy all my life. I have read the memoirs of his generals and his leaders. I have even read his philosophers and listened to his music. I have studied in detail the account of every one of his battles. I know exactly how he will react under any given set of circumstances. So when the time comes, I'm going to whip the hell out of him."

Of course, you may not want to be quite so combative. In any case, all sorts of expertise is available on a country-by-country basis, from scholarly treatises to seasoned consultants, to learn about cultural idiosyncrasies. Consider adding a guide to your team, whether it's a professional, a friend who knows how "they" think, or simply a translator. Just be careful whom you choose. A line in one of Jimmy Carter's 1977 speeches in Poland was mistranslated: "I desire the Poles carnally."

A speaker and attorney in Los Angeles, Marc Diener is the author of Deal Power.

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