5 Tips to Improve Cross-Cultural Negotiation.

You might be a star negotiator in your own country, but in today’s global economy your negotiation skills may not automatically translate to other cultures. For example, in some cultures your counterparts may expect you to be emotionally expressive during a negotiation as a way to express that your real interest to arrive to a decision shortly. However, in other cultures being emotionally expressive may be viewed as a sign of lack of professionalism or business experience.

In a December 2015 article for the Harvard Business Review, Erin Meyer, a professor at the INSEAD School of Business and author of The Culture Map, provides five key negotiation skills to improve your cross-cultural negotiation. Here is a review of those skills with some applications.

  1. Adapt How You Express Disagreement

In Meyer’s research, she found that some cultures, such as Mexico and Saudi Arabia, avoid confrontation as much as possible, and that of other cultures, such as Israel and France, welcome confrontation. It’s important to be aware of how you express disagreement to prevent negotiation talks from falling apart.

Meyer suggests to develop an understanding of words used to soften, such as “a little bit” and “maybe,” and strengthen, such as “totally” and “absolutely,” disagreement. Depending on the cultural context, those words can provide useful context to understand how negotiations are going.

  1. Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve (Or Not at All!)

Jonathan Kozol was famous for having said, “Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.”  However, in cross-cultural negotiation, you may find that some cultures may want to pick up every single battle no matter how small.

Some cultures may react very emotionally during negotiations and may you to do so as well. Other may shy away from such behavior. Know in advance what level of emotion is permissible by the culture of your counterparts so that you’re not caught off guard by the high level (or lack of) of animation from your counterparts. By the same token, adapt to the local culture and avoid behavior that would make you seem uninterested or disrespectful.

  1. Learn the Local Way to Build Trust

Even though guanxi (loosely translated as networking) is portrayed heavily as an important part of Chinese business culture, mianzi (face) is a less exposed concept that is directly related with building relationships with government authorities.

During the 1990’s and 2000’s, food retailer Carrefour was aggressively expanding in China and was good at inviting local and provincial government authorities to visit the company, but failed to do so with central government authorities.  This combined with the anger from domestic retailers, whose operations were greatly harmed or even went bankrupt from the aggressive entrance of Carrefour, and the constant criticism from the media, triggered the State Council to make a public example with Carrefour China. The negotiation time between the State Council and Carrefour China took about six months and cost the company 18 months in restricted expansion.

The lesson from this case study is that while it may appear to make more economic sense to leave certain local players out of the negotiation table, this strategy may backfire later down the road.

  1. Consider the Context of Yes/No Answers

A common contract negotiation pitfall is the focus on winning. Under this mindset, we may push our counterparts to provide yes and no answers quickly or absolutely commit to those answers.

Meyer provides three useful scenarios to consider:

  • A Danish company that was surprised that an Indonesian supplier wasn’t able to provide a “no” to requested deadline in person but did so in writing several days later. The reason was that from an Indonesian perspective is rude to look someone who you respect in the eye and say no to a request.
  • An Indonesian manager felt insulted when a French company kept telling them “no-no-no-no” to one of their requests, while the French company felt that it was an invitation to discuss the terms of the final agreement.
  • A team of British and American negotiators became frustrated with their Japanese counterparts due to the latter’s delay in providing answers. On the other hand, the Japanese are comfortable with long pauses and need extra time to confer in private before providing final answers.
  1. Put It in Writing Only When Necessary

While it may appear to be counterintuitive to leave business agreements outside of formal contracts, Meyer warns about the perils of insisting of having everything in written when negotiating abroad. She cites that negotiations in some emerging markets, including Africa or Asia, would sour if you were to send a written recap of a verbal agreement.

In countries with less reliable legal frameworks, business relationships have more weight than contracts under several scenarios. However, this may extend to other nations in which the signing of a contract is just part of future negotiations not the end of them.


Keep in mind that these five tips are not absolute rules but useful guidelines to use to react and fine-tune your cross-cultural negotiations.  By adapting your negotiation style to the accepted cultural norms of your counterpart, you are increasing your chances of landing the deal.

Contract Management Negotiation