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Negotiating Life

A World of Difference

How culture affects negotiating style

We know that culture shapes the way people think, communicate, and behave. So shouldn’t it also affect the way people negotiate? My research has found ten elements of negotiation that vary across cultures. I surveyed 310 negotiators of twelve nationalities and asked them to rate themselves on each element. Here is a summary of the results:

Negotiating goal: transaction or relationship? For some negotiators, the goal is a specific transaction, usually in the form of a signed contract. For others, it’s to create a relationship between the parties. In my survey, 74 percent of Spanish respondents claimed their goal was a contract, while only 37 percent of Indians did. Americans were almost evenly divided.

Negotiating attitude: win-win or win-lose? People usually see negotiations as either a collaborative process in which both sides can gain (win-win) or a struggle in which one side wins and the other loses (win-lose). Win-win was claimed by 100 percent of Japanese and 82 percent of Chinese, but only 33 percent of the Spaniards and 44 percent of the Brazilians.

Personal style: informal or formal? The style that a negotiator uses to interact with counterparts ranges from formal—addressing others by their titles and avoiding personal anecdotes, for example—to informal. The survey revealed that 83 percent of the Americans preferred informal dealings, while only 45 percent of the Nigerians, 53 percent of the Spanish, and 54 percent of the Chinese did.

Communications: direct or indirect? Some negotiators use a direct approach, others a more indirect method, marked by circumlocutions and subtle gestures. Most groups surveyed claimed to favor direct forms of communication, but Japanese were the least in favor and Nigerians and Mexicans most in favor.

Time sensitivity: high or low? It is said that Germans value punctuality and that Latin Americans don’t, while Japanese negotiate slowly and Americans quickly. Although a majority of respondents, including Americans, claimed to have a high sensitivity to time, a substantial minority of Indians and French did not.

Emotionalism: high or low? Different cultures have different rules about displaying emotions. Latin Americans rated themselves highest with respect to emotionalism, while Germans ranked least.

Agreement form: general or specific? Certain cultures prefer that the details of agreements be spelled out in great detail; others favor general statements of principles. Although a majority of the groups surveyed—including 90 percent of U.K. respondents—preferred detailed agreements, 46 percent of Japanese and Germans favored general agreements.

Agreement building: bottom up or top down? For some negotiators, arriving at an agreement is a top-down process that begins with an understanding on general principles and then proceeds to specific details. For others, negotiation is a bottom-up process: agreements on many specifics ultimately coalesce into a deal. The survey revealed significant variations. The top-down approach was favored by 74 percent of Indians, 70 percent of Argentines, and 67 percent of French, but only by 33 percent of Mexicans and 42 percent of Brazilians.

Team organization: one leader or group consensus? Some negotiating teams make decisions through group consensus, while others rely on a single leader. In the survey, 100 percent of Brazilians and 91 percent of Chinese favored a single leader, while 60 percent of Indians and French preferred consensus.

Risk taking: high or low? Some cultures are more risk averse than others. In the survey, 90 percent of the French claimed to be risk takers, while 82 percent of Japanese judged themselves risk averse, which could account for a reported negotiating behavior that requires large amounts of information and slow decision-making.

While personality and context also strongly influence negotiating behavior, knowing something about cultural negotiating traits may help you better understand your counterparts from other countries. Equally important, it may give you clues about how your own negotiating style appears to them.

Detailed survey results are presented in Salacuse’s book The Global Negotiator (Palgrave Macmillan). For copies of the full report email jeswald.salacuse@tufts.edu.

JESWALD W. SALACUSE is the Henry J. Braker Professor of Law and former dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts. His most recent book is The Law of Investment Treaties (Oxford University Press).

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