Listening to a fellow faculty member’s presentation on psychological barriers in negotiation during the recent CLM Mediation Claims College in Baltimore, it once again struck me how very differently various cultures go about establishing trust.
How do we convey “trust me” in our interactions? The default in majority American culture is to smile, make eye contact, and offer a firm handshake. In fact, I distinctly remember a networking event in law school in which we were specifically told that eye contact and a firm handshake are critical components of a good first impression. And having grown up in Germany, which shares many of the values and customs of the U.S., I wholeheartedly accepted this advice.
But in some cultures, a smile may not be a sign of warmth or even respect. Instead, it may be evidence that you are a fool. (An old Russian proverb roughly translates to “laughing for no reason is a sign of stupidity.")
Similarly, many Asian cultures consider direct eye contact disrespectful, especially when engaging with someone who holds a superior position.
And the handshake? Some cultures do not shake hands at all; some frown on handshakes between persons of opposite genders; in some, a limp hand is a must; and in some, it is a sign of friendship to hold the other person’s hand for a long time.
Cultural Differences in Negotiation
So what is a negotiator to do?
- It always pays to learn as much as you can about your negotiating partner and their stakeholders. This holds true whether you are from overtly different cultures or not.*
- Set aside your assumptions, and ask questions instead.
- Build a relationship with the “other side” that goes beyond the minutiae of the negotiation. (In many cultures, a shared meal lays the foundation for subsequent negotiations.)
- Create a set of shared expectations, to limit the potential for miscommunication.
(* For an illuminating perspective on cultural differences within the U.S., take a look at this Guardian article, which is primarily about food security, but has much larger implications.)