It’s no longer unusual to do business that transcends borders. What used to be an exception has become the norm in the world of global connectedness we live in. Negotiating business across different nations and cultures, however, can be quite challenging as many things that are acceptable or even expected in one culture are a no-go in another.

A diagram on The Harvard Business Review’s website visualizes different countries’ negotiation styles. It places countries on two axes depending on their acceptance of emotions and confrontation in business negotiations. “For cold-as-fish negotiations, go to northern Europe or eastern Asia. If you want hugs and small talk with your deal go to a Latin country,” as Frank Jacobs sums it up in an article on In some ways he’s right. I have travelled across the world and have done business in quite a few places – it still astounds and fascinates me how different we tend to approach business in different places.

It all sounds relatively easy. Do your research and be respectful. But when you’re sitting at the negotiation table and you’ve got a goal in mind, it suddenly is a lot more difficult. And the styles depicted by The Harvard Business Review’s diagram are not the only things to look out for. Cultural differences already begin with different ways of greeting each other, eye contact or the composition of your negotiation team.

An article in the International Journal of Economics and Finance points out some of these differences – Chinese for instance greet each other with personal questions and Japanese exchange gifts before starting a first business meeting, while in most Western countries negotiations tend to be strictly about business.

Considering there are so many different dos and don’ts when it comes to intercultural negotiations it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. Sometimes conventions even change within cultures. In China and India for instance, there can be up to 30 different regions, each with their own conventions, as noted in an article in the South China Morning Post.

Erin Meyer, professor and program director for Managing Global Virtual Teams at INSEAD, suggests finding a cultural bridge – someone who is from the other culture or knows the other culture intimately – to help you at the negotiation table.  Interestingly some anticipate these differences in styles to disappear in about 20 years as a result of generational change, globalisation and digital connectivity.

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Kevin Roberts

Kevin Roberts is founder of Red Rose Consulting; business leader and educator; author and speaker; adviser on marketing, creative thinking and leadership.


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