It is easy to fall in the trap of the cultural stereotype when negotiating internationally. Do not let it ruin your “date”.

Label me, I'll label you:

“Us” & “They” labels have a distributive function (win/lose) and are the very thing which you should avoid while starting a negotiation. Differentiating exacerbates resentment, fear or anger, of the other part. It gives you a false sense of where the power lies. Entering negotiation with this split in mind, will make it very brief as you’ll soon end in a two-monologue kind of discussion. Start with an integrative strategy.


Before being a question of interests, rights, powers, BATNAs (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement), etc., negotiation is always part of a human relationship. And any true human relationship starts with sharing.

Let the ice break:

Speaking of culture in international negotiations is generally simply missing the point unless culture is the point being negotiated.

When dealing with foreigners for the first time, both sides know that they do not share the same culture and that, eventually, things will be misinterpreted. Yet, it is important to state openly this point early as an icebreaker as it sets a small pressure valve in the way.

You do so by gently agreeing with the other part that both parties will let the other one know, as they would to a friend, when one side thinks the other one trespasses the line by saying:


“In my country when people do/say … it is understood as … Is this what you mean?”


This can sometimes change a tensed situation into a laughing matter. It does not avoid faux-pas but makes them less dramatic and helps to save face.

Be careful to add too that, because such habits are so much rooted in our brains, if one does make a mistake, he is most likely to redo it.


This point is even more important if you “meet” only by phone conference as you lose a lot of communication cues over the phone.


Both sides should sense this practice as a joint learning session about their relationship. By doing so, you will build a better one with the other side. Remember, people love to do business with people they like.


However, doing this icebreaker when things start to turn sour is too late as the gesture of genuine relationship will be seen as manipulative.

I remember, at the end a fishing afternoon set up as a negotiating break, when we were photographed together with our catch of the day, one French member decided to do the victory sign with his fingers, but with his hand turned front-to-back. When a British from the other negotiation part told him what it meant in the UK, he reversed his hand, half-embarrassed and we all laughed. So, even blunders may ease tensions.


As reported on the Prescott Courier dated Jan 3, 1992, President Bush (Senior) apparently made the same mistake while on an official trip to Canberra, Australia …

Importance of the national culture:

National culture may impact negotiation; this is true but it is secondary to the negotiators’ personal characters. You may witness more differences between a soldier, an entrepreneur and an accountant, all Spanish, than between a Spanish engineer and a Swedish one.


Negotiators may still use the national culture and its many symbols. Here culture is not anymore a bundle of peculiar social customs but a means to negotiate. This makes perfect sense for most politicians.

Are you normal?

The above overgeneralization (without the red cross), 18 dots representing 40% of the worldwide population, did not seem to shock the usual social networks. Yet, it is strikingly easy to find counter-examples (& examples):

  • It is hard to imagine Presidents Hollande & Sarkozy, or Presidents Obama & Bush (Junior), sharing the same dots.
  • Furthermore, if your father is Japanese, your mother from Brazil and that you have lived in Germany since early childhood, I wish you good luck to spot your place.

Normality, here (center of the graph) is a stereotype of a US-defined, WASP-ish, normality. It is one way to look at it among many others. It tells us more about who has been part of the survey than anything else. The numbers of shooting in the US (more than one per day this year) tend to show a different story as far as the US are concerned.

The top-left to bottom-right diagonal is an (inversed) intensity scale of negotiations that US citizen are familiar with while the other diagonal shows countries in which negotiating attitudes are less understood. Past & current history may help to understand why the dots stand where they are.


But may be not. All Americans may not be blood-thirsty gun lovers going on the rampage.

Beware of stereotyping as it is a fast-track rationalization filter, limiting thinking. That’s why we use stereotypes and why they are so powerful. So, use and analyze them with caution. Try to use them only in positive & integrative ways.

Stop processing:

When you don’t get to the personal level and stick where national culture remains a predominant factor, you have not worked enough to know who is on the other side of the table.

Get “personal” if you don't want to get stuck at the protocol level. The core of a negotiation is not a process, it is a relationship. You don’t need to love your counter-negotiator but you should know his emotional triggers and his rational ones. Preparations should take time unless you really know your counterpart well.


Without this personal aspect, the typical negotiation’s process will be incorrect as it restrains the human factor. You must put the process secondary to your understanding of what you want the relationship to be afterwards the negotiation. Are you trying to create / carry on / change / terminate the relationship? Is the negotiation a grab-&-run?


Go deep in understanding how the other sees the world. The more opposed or estranged to the values of the other side, the further you must go.

Negotiating against yourself:

As a good negotiator, you should know the likely reaction you are going to create and thus the response the other side will give to it. You will face what you create and more.


In a dispute resolution, knowing who started first and who retaliated has to be put aside if the relationship needs to carry on. Countries at war, unless seeking domination & annihilation, fail to see that there will be a relationship after the war and that both have become aggressed & aggressor.

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