Cross-Cultural Influence and Negotiation

Posted on 06/01/2008 in Sales Negotiation Skills

Since most of the readers of this newsletter are located in the United States, many of the examples in this newsletter discuss some business challenges between Americans and other countries and cultures. However, the general principles in this newsletter apply to all situations where two or more cultures are involved.

Seven Common Pitfalls When Influencing and Negotiating With Other Cultures

  1. Don’ be ethnocentric. To say this a little differently: many people believe, consciously or unconsciously, that their culture is superior to others. That approach will hurt you during cross-cultural business negotiations and influence situations. If you insist on doing everything "your way”, the other person is likely to resist or offer passive compliance at best.
  2. Subtle translation issues are often missed. Unless you are extremely fluent in another language, you are likely to miss some colloquiums or the intended meaning of a particular phrase or symbol. Here is a simple example. One of our most popular sales training topics is STAR’s trademarked questioning technique known as IDEAL Questioning. In English, the acronym IDEAL stands for 5 types of questions (Informational, Dissatisfaction, Expansion, Action, and List Options). Yet, when translated into Spanish by one of our multilingual instructors, the words and the concept translated okay but the resulting acronym in Spanish was meaningless.
  3. Silent translation issues, notably body language and gestures, can be offensive. There are always translation issues when translating from one language to another but there’s also the unknown behavior, notably body language and non-verbals, which can offend the other person. For example, the "OK” sign in the United States where you touch your first finger to your thumb (making a circle) while the rest of the fingers stand tall is very offensive in many other countries.  In Saudi Arabia and some other cultures, it is very disrespectful to show the bottom of your shoe to someone…so when Americans cross their legs and any part of the bottom of the shoe is showing then we are offending that other person.
  4. Are you task or relationship-oriented, or do you focus on both factors? Many Americans are task-oriented, which works well when it is time to get down to business or to do a particular task. By contrast to many other cultures, which tend to focus more time and more sincerely on the relationship, we often approach a situation too abruptly. In many cultures the first meeting will be completely focused on relationship building and finding common ground. In relationship-oriented cultures, patience is the key to success and expecting to get a deal done during the initial meeting is unrealistic.
  5. Should you be formal or informal in your overall approach? This manifests itself in several ways. Some common examples: Do you use first names, last names or titles when introduced and speaking with the other party? Does the senior person on your team purposely make the opening and closing remarks? In some cultures, it would be disrespectful to use the other person’s first name, and inappropriate if a junior member of the team spoke out of turn. To the extent you want the other side to be comfortable, be aware of your tendencies and the accepted practices of the country and culture that you are visiting.
  6. Humor rarely translates well. I recall firsthand an observation from an overseas licensee that I was meeting with many years ago when I was in a different job in a different company. He confided that it puzzled him why Americans tend to use humor so often to open a meeting or a conversation. What we consider a humorous icebreaker is often viewed as puzzling or inappropriate by many other cultures.
  7. Different cultures have a different perspective on the use of time. For example, an agreement to meet at 10:00 a.m. for a business meeting may be viewed as a punctual commitment by some cultures, and merely a suggestion by other cultures. Time-related factors need to be explicitly stated. If a deadline is truly firm, be very clear.  

Two General Suggestions

There is an enormous amount of material that could be shared and learned about cross-cultural differences. The seven pitfalls mentioned above are by no means the only potential problem areas.   In a newsletter of this scope, it is difficult to give a lot of detailed suggestions, so let’s end this month’s newsletter with two simple yet effective suggestions. 

  1. Try to always have someone on your team that is from that country and culture.This will help to ensure that many of the pitfalls mentioned above, such as translation and timing issues, are avoided.
  2. Do some preliminary research on the country or culture before visiting. If you can show the other person that you’ve at least tried, it helps. This also will help to mitigate the tendency toward ethnocentrism.

STAR has two workshops that address the skills and concepts in this newsletter.  Please visit our Sales Workshops Page to learn more about our workshops that teach the skills involved in cross-cultural influence and negotiation:  How to Achieve Results Through Influencing Workshop and Sales Negotiation Skills Workshop