Cross Cultural Negotiation (Business): What You Need to Know

Negotiation is a big part of every business strategy. Learn how to handle cross cultural negotiations with international businesses.

A group of business people engage in a cross-cultural business negotiation

This blog post was originally published March 2020, and was revised May 2023.

Negotiation is an essential part of an effective business strategy. Key business decisions may either come to fruition or fall apart, depending on how successfully you negotiate a deal.

When negotiating internationally, cultural differences can make the process even more challenging. You want to ensure that your goals are met, but at the same time, you want to respect others’ cultural norms and cultural values. As you begin preparations for an intercultural negotiation, here’s what you need to know to make the interaction as successful as possible:

With Interpreters, You Can Overcome the Language Barrier 

For most people, the language barrier can be the most intimidating cultural difference – after all, if you can’t have clear communication with each other, how can you even begin a discussion? Cross cultural communication is important. Therefore, some people choose to use an interpreter so the focus stays on the deal at hand, and not the semantics of language. This also ensures that no caveat, addendum or important detail is lost in translation. Just keep in mind:

  • The interpreter doesn’t know your business. Help this person by briefing him or her on the deal prior to the meeting. Make sure there is communication about any technical terms or special acronyms that may be used in the discussion. A little bit of context can help the interpreter better understand the full situation.
  • The interpreter is an ally, not an opponent. Remain respectful with your interpreter. Don’t take your frustrations out on him or her if they tell you what you don’t want to hear (they are merely the messenger), as it may result in a conflict between you and your interpreter.

An interpreter may not be appropriate for all situations. Although you may feel like the hire is a further effort in due diligence, it could be viewed as impersonal in a different culture. Know that you may be able to successfully navigate the conversation with little knowledge of the language by remembering these guidelines:

  • Speak slowly and clearly.
  • Keep your words concise and straightforward.
  • Don’t use too much technical jargon.
  • Ask questions to clarify meaning and offer a chance for the negotiators to do the same.
  • Remain attentive and listen to understand, not simply to respond.

Above all, don’t use words to impress. You may pick up a few words or phrases of the negotiators’ native language, but don’t throw them in the discussion haphazardly to show that you know something of their culture. This could inadvertently offend someone, and moreover, you could look like you’re trying too hard to make a good impression.

Know the Cultural Differences Among Business Standards

The way we do business in America is not necessarily how business is done in Spain, Turkey or Nigeria. Every culture abides by its own set of business standards and it’s important to be aware of the different ways each country does business before you even set foot in the boardroom. You must develop international business skills to succeed in global settings:

  • Punctuality – In the U.S., timing is everything. If you walk into a meeting or an interview one minute past the start time, you’ve already started off on the wrong foot and may run into conflict. But in other cultures, tardiness may not be considered offensive at all. In fact, punctuality-or showing up too early-can be seen as uptight and too formal.
  • Formality – Along those same lines, some cultures favor an informal negotiation over a formal negotiation. In these situations, the negotiator will invite small talk to first get to know you as a person. Using an interpreter here would likely not be in your best interest.
  • Individual vs. group negotiation – In some countries, a group of negotiators (negotiation team) is preferred, whereas in others, a single negotiator is trusted to do the job.
  • Negotiation style/Negotiation Strategy – Every culture has a different negotiation process or negotiation behavior. We Americans tend to favor a win-win negotiation where everyone walks away with something. However, in some cultures or another country, the process of negotiating is confrontational, and a win-lose negotiating style is preferred.
  • Emotions – Keep your cool, but don’t expect others to keep theirs. In some countries, showing emotion during negotiations is acceptable, while in others, participants may remain stoic.

Walk into the meeting with open eyes and take the time to observe the other negotiators. Follow their lead and be open to adapting your style to theirs when necessary. Be open to other communication styles as it will help build a relationship between you and another culture.

Do Your Homework Ahead of the Cross Cultural Negotiation

Respect and courtesy are valued by all people, regardless of culture, and the best sign of respect is to show that you’ve done your homework. It may be a process, but before you meet with a group of Chinese investors, or before you fly to Dubai for a make-or-break meeting, conduct research on their cultures. Find out what body language, hand gestures, and greetings are considered impolite or inappropriate, and conversely, find out what is acceptable and appreciated. Search for the appropriate cultural negotiating methods and business standards. Actions speak louder than words, and just by showing that you are well informed of cultural norms, you can speak volumes.

If you’re ready to learn even more about business negotiation, consider earning an Online MBA from SMU Cox School of Business. You’ll gain the interpersonal, communication and business skills necessary for a successful career in the world of business. To learn more, call admissions at 214-768-1214 or request more information.