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How to Overcome Cultural Barriers in Negotiation

The Scotwork Team


In today's business world, you will likely negotiate with people from different cultures. Even within your home country, businesses may hire international negotiators who bring their cultural nuances to the negotiation table.

Knowing how to navigate different cultural backgrounds can better prepare us for negotiations. Whether you aim to build a lasting relationship with another company or you just have one meeting and one chance to negotiate successfully, you never want to offend the other party. Knowing how to accommodate cultural differences and recognise other norms will always be key to successful negotiations.

What is a cultural barrier?

Quite simply, cultural barriers are challenges that occur due to differences in cultures. We all might be human, but we have grown up in vastly varying geographical locations with different formative experiences, and all of this shapes the way we see the world. Ethnologists have recorded over 3,800 distinct cultures around the world, and there are thought to be over 7,000 different languages (with 90% of these having less than 100,000 speakers!).

English might be the most common business language, but that does not mean even all English speakers are alike. There are massive cultural differences between Americans, Brits, and Australians, even though many will claim English as their first or even only language. Even within the UK, cultural differences exist between English, Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish people. We can even zoom in further if you want to include the North/South divide in England alone!

Even countries that share a geographical border, like France and Germany, will have several cross-cultural barriers that need to be overcome for successful discussions to take place. Cultural barriers can cause very real issues when they are allowed to take root.

10 Common cultural barriers

If we are to overcome the various cultural barriers we might encounter, we first need to know what they are. Here are some of the most common cultural differences we might come up against.

1. Language and communication styles

Language is one of the biggest cultural barriers we can encounter. As mentioned above, English might be one of the most spoken languages around the world, but that doesn't mean that everyone speaks it at the same level. Introducing local dialects and accents can complicate communication further.

A non-native English speaker might have a great ear for a standard English accent, but then they have to sit down in a meeting with someone with a strong British regional accent. Suddenly, that non-native speaker feels out of their depth and struggles to understand and communicate effectively.

Communication styles can also vary from culture to culture. The United States and Germany prefer a very direct and explicit communication style. Other cultures, like Japan, are more reserved and might consider non-verbal cues more.

2. Non-verbal communication

Speaking of non-verbal communication, many cultures can interpret the same gesture differently. Knowing body language cues can prevent you from making a mistake that is innocent on your part but incredibly offensive to the other party and their cultural background.

For example, the thumbs up is considered to be a good symbol across most of the Western world. It is an easy way for you to quickly show your appreciation or acknowledgement of something. However, in many countries across West Africa and the Middle East, a thumbs up is actually equivalent to giving someone the middle finger and should therefore definitely be avoided!

3. Societal values and beliefs

While you should always focus on the person you will be negotiating with, considering wider societal values and beliefs can give you some key insights that can help you later. Every culture is a little bit different after all, and thinking about some of the widely held societal beliefs can help you to anticipate where negotiations might go.

For example, societal values held by traditionally Christian-dominant countries such as France or Spain might not be reflected elsewhere. Even people raised in other Abrahamic religions might share different values. On top of this, people raised in countries where Hinduism, Buddhism, or any of the other major world religions or philosophies have shaped the cultural norms will be influenced by them. This can be prevalent even if individuals do not consider themselves to be members of a particular faith; they have still been raised in a society with those values.

There may also be some people who have been raised in what are still very ethno-homogenous societies. Countries like Japan do not typically have a mixing of different cultures as we see in parts of the US and UK. This will show in societal values and beliefs.

4. Etiquette and protocol

Some cultures take etiquette and protocol very seriously. A negotiation will begin with a firm handshake, and then the discussion will follow a formal and regimented agenda. Others might be a lot more laid back and flexible.

Many cultures view the sharing of a meal as important, so you might expect to go to dinner with the other party as part of the proceedings. This can be great for overcoming cultural barriers and getting to know the people you are negotiating with, but you should know the local etiquette in doing so.

5. Cultural hierarchy

Some countries have a very strong hierarchal approach to business, while others prefer a collaborative approach that does not prioritise the opinions of managers over low-ranking workers. This can often link back to those societal values. If a country places a lot of importance on respecting elders and those more senior to you, it might be better to send an older and more experienced negotiator rather than a junior one.

Countries with strong hierarchal values in their society, such as Korea or India, may defer major decision-making to their most senior executives. Workers from a more egalitarian society, such as Sweden, will prefer a collaborative approach. They may be more in favour of letting everyone voice an opinion or offering a solution.

6. Risk-taking

Some countries are more adverse to risk-taking than others. When negotiating with people from these countries, it is typical to see them wanting a little more time to discuss negotiations and consider outcomes. Other countries that are more used to taking risks might be happier to agree to terms after very little discussion.

The UK and the US are two countries that are more in favour of risks compared to others. Negotiators here might be more inclined to go for something that has more risk for a greater pay-off, compared to a company like Japan where careful analysis and thought are preferred.

7. Gift-giving

One key consideration to make in international relations is whether or not gift-giving can be considered appropriate between parties. In some cultures, such as China or Korea, giving gifts to the other party is considered polite and part of the transaction. It is a way of showing gratitude for the time spent together, and it is not uncommon for companies to send one another gifts as a gesture of thanks.

In some countries like the US, gifts can often be looked at as a form of bribery. Gifts are sent less to express thanks and more as an acknowledgement that a certain favourable outcome was reached. For this reason, many organisations have strict protocols regarding whether or not gifts can be accepted.

8. Attitude towards time

Many different cultural groups have varying attitudes towards timekeeping. While one group may value prompt responses and a strict adherence to time. Other cultures might be a little more laid back and willing to embrace flexibility.

Germany appreciates punctuality and good timekeeping, while Italy is a bit more relaxed. This is another great example of how two countries that are very close to one another geographically still have very different cultural backgrounds and values.

9. Bias and stereotypes

Of course, one has to consider that all of the differences we have listed above can also be stereotypical depictions of those countries. While some Germans may be punctual, Americans can be brash, and Brits can be over-polite, there are plenty of others who break the mould.

This is why we always need to consider the people at the heart of the negotiation, and not just what we might have heard from others. Push past any cultural preconceptions that you may have and focus on the matter at hand in your negotiation.

10. Negotiation strategies and styles

Finally, you need to consider that some negotiation styles will not work when negotiating with some cultures. A change of strategy might work better to build a relationship compared to pushing through with what you usually do.

For example, if you favour a more aggressive and upfront negotiation strategy, you might find yourself floundering in the face of or even offending a party from a more reserved culture. Adapting your negotiation strategies on the fly can help to build mutual understanding and lead to more successful outcomes.

How to overcome cultural barriers and negotiate successfully

With the above cultural barriers established, we need to consider some of the ways we can best overcome them. This allows us to head into the negotiation process with confidence as we can begin to anticipate what might lie ahead for us. Here are some of the steps you can take to cross those cultural barriers to communication and negotiate successfully.

1. Do your prep work

Prep work is one of the most important steps in any negotiation, and so many good negotiators still think that they can skip it!

Without any prep work, you are walking into a negotiation blind. This is bad enough when you have to work with someone from a culture and background similar to yours. However, lacking cultural awareness of others can quickly land you in hot water. No one wants to offend other cultures, but as we can see from the body language cues listed above, it is so easy to inadvertently do so.

Offence is not worth the risk. Do your research and get that prep work done.

2. Take inspiration from diplomats

Looking for inspiration and strategies from others is always a great idea. When it comes to cross-cultural negotiation, following the strategies used by diplomats can provide some brilliant insights.

They frequently have to negotiate with others. It could be due to an escalating conflict, or to secure a new trade deal. The scope of the work they take on is immense so there should always be something that you can take and apply to your own negotiations.

3. Spend time in the culture

The fastest way to gain cultural perspective is to actually spend time in that particular culture. Not everyone is able to drop everything to go live in another country for a few months or even just go there on holiday, but there are still plenty of things you can do.

Watch films, listen to music, and read the local news — all of these activities will get you closer to a particular culture without ever having to leave your own home. If you are visiting another country or city to start your negotiations, ask to go a few days early, if possible, and spend your free time soaking everything up. It really will make all the difference.

4. Research the people as well as the culture

Make sure that you don't focus everything on researching the differences in culture that you might meet. As we said above, there are always exceptions to the rule and a company's top negotiator might be very different from the rest of their peers.

When doing your prep work, take the time to research the people at the heart of the negotiation. Don't just get caught up in understanding the cultural differences; maybe they studied in your country for a bit and will know to anticipate some of the cultural barriers in your way!

5. Brief your translators

If you know that there are going to be language and cultural barriers in your negotiation, it only makes sense to bring a translator with you. They can help to smooth over mistakes you make, and they will obviously work to make sure that everyone understands and is understood during the discussion.

Try to hire your own translator rather than rely on one provided by the other party. This allows you to sit down with the translator before the negotiations and brief them as you would a colleague. They form a key part of your team, and your way of overcoming language differences, so you need to be on the same page before you start.

6. Seek common ground

One of the fastest ways to get around cultural barriers is to find the common ground that you both share. This is why preparation for negotiation is so important; it is during your prep that you might find these common areas of interest.

They can be the smallest thing — such as supporting the same football team — but that initial connection might be all you need to get the conversation flowing and the deal done.

7. Be prepared for flexibility and compromise

When dealing with cross-cultural negotiations, there is every chance that you will have to change a lot of things compared to how you usually do business. Embracing diversity means that you need to be ready to change at a minute's notice.

Some negotiators will tell you to never give in or compromise as that will not get you the results you want. However, this simply isn't feasible a lot of the time. It is only through compromise that we get to learn more about ourselves and our limits.

8. Work to build trust

Communication issues can unfortunately bring a lot of mistakes with them. You need to ensure that you work hard to establish trust with the other party and then maintain it.

It can be difficult if you don't speak one another's language, and this is why it is so important to find that common ground. Remember, various cultures all around the world have been coming together to negotiate for thousands of years, so you should be able to do it too!

9. Adapt, adapt, adapt

You can't go into a negotiation with cultural barriers and then expect everything to go your way. Preparing different communication styles and improving your negotiation skills will help you to better adapt and take on anything that might come your way.

Choosing to overcome cultural barriers requires us to actively challenge our preconceived notions, and this can be difficult at first. Learning how to adapt quickly can help you focus on where you can make change the fastest.

10. Understand you might make mistakes

Overcoming cultural barriers is never easy. Even those with the best of intentions can make mistakes, and those mistakes can be incredibly offensive even when we don't mean them to be.

However, by showing humility and offering leniency to those who make mistakes to us in return, we can all work towards true collaboration and breaking down cultural differences.

Let Scotwork help

With over 40 offices globally and 45 years of experience in negotiation training, we at Scotwork are no strangers to stepping into settings with unfamiliar customs and new protocols to observe. Let us work with you to improve your negotiation skills and be more confident than ever in chasing results.

Contact us today to learn more about our courses and negotiation training!

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