Meetings are not begun in the same way as we move from culture to culture. Some are opened punctually, briskly and in a ‘business-like’ fashion. Others start with chit-chat and some meetings have difficulty getting going at all.
Germans, Scandinavians and Americans like to get on with it. They see no point in delay. Americans are well-known for their business breakfasts (a barbaric custom in Spanish eyes). In England, France, Italy and Spain it would be considered rude to broach the issues immediately. It is seen as much more civilised to ease into the subject after exchanging pleasantries which can last from 10 minutes to half an hour. The English, particularly, are almost shame-faced at indicating when one should start (Well, Charlie, I suppose we ought to have a look at this bunch of paperwork …). In Japan, where platitudes are mandatory, there is almost a fixed period which has to elapse before the senior person present says: ‘The fact of the matter is …) at which point everybody puts their head down and starts. Japanese meetings are conducted in phases:
a) platitudinous preamble;
b) outline of subject to be discussed (language used formal);
c) airing of views (less formal in tone;
d) replies of each party to other’s views (more formal and non-confrontational);
e) summary by both sides (formal).Negotiation
Many meetings between people of different cultures are held to conduct negotiations, and the approach of each side is affected by cultural factors. Germans will ask you all the difficult questions from the start. You must convince them of your efficiency, quality of goods and promptness of service. There are features Germans consider among their own strong cards and they expect the same from you, at the lowest possible price. They will give you little business at first, but much more later when they have tested you. French tend to give business much faster, but may also withdraw it more quickly. Spaniards often seem not to appreciate the preparations you have made to facilitate a deal. They don’t study all the details, but they study you. They will only do business with you if they like you and think you are ‘honourable’.
The Japanese are similar in this respect. They must like you and trust you, otherwise no deal. Like the Germans, they will ask many questions about price, delivery and quality, but the Japanese will ask them all ten times. You have to be patient. Japanese are not interested in profits immediately, only in the market share and reputation of the company.
Finns and Swedes expect modernity, efficiency and new ideas. They like to think of themselves as being up to date and sophisticated. They will expect your company to have the latest office computers and streamlined factories. The American business approach is to get down quickly to a discussion of investment, budgets and profits. They hurry you along and make you sign the five year plan.
Business people from small nations with a long tradition of trading, such as the Netherlands and Portugal, are usually friendly and adaptable, but prove to be excellent negotiators. Brazilians never believe your first price to be the real one, and expect you to bend it later, so you must take this into your calculations.
In short, one gets down to business in different ways, according to the customs of the host country. Concepts of time, space and protocol all play their part. It is only when the meeting gets underway, however, that deeper chasms of cultural difference begin to yawn. Established principles
Business schools, management gurus, trade consultants and industrial psychologists have focused, for most of the twentieth century, on the goal of reducing the process of negotiation to a fine art, if not a science. Papers have been written, manuals have been devised and published. The Americans in particular, by dint of their obvious successes in the development of business techniques, not to mention their decades-long supremacy in world trade, have held a dominant position in the expounding and dissemination of the principles of negotiation.
One could be forgiven for assuming that relatively unchanging, universally accepted principles of negotiation would by now have been established - –hat an international consensus would have been reached on how negotiators should conduct themselves in meetings, how the phases of negotiation should proceed and how hierarchies of goals and objectives should be dealt with. One might assume that negotiators with their common concepts (learned from manuals) of ploys, bargaining strategies, use of data, fallback positions, closing techniques, restriction gambits, mix of factual, intuitive and psychological approaches, are interchangeable players in a (serious) game where internationally recognised rules of tactics, points won and gained, positions achieved would lead to a civilised agreement on the division of the spoils. This ‘game plan’ and its successful prosecution are not unusual or infrequent in domestic negotiation between nationals of one culture. But the moment international and intercultural factors enter into the equation, things change completely. Nationals of different cultures negotiate in completely different ways. The problems
These derive from two sources: the professionalism of the negotiating team; and cross-cultural bias.
As far as professionalism is concerned, what is often forgotten is that negotiating teams rarely consist of professional or trained negotiators. While this does not apply so much to government negotiation, it is often readily observable at company level. A small company, when establishing contact with a foreign partner, very often is represented by its managing director and an assistant. A medium-sized firm will probably involve its export director, finance director and necessary technical support. Even large companies rely on the performance of the MD supported by, perhaps, highly specialised technical staff and finance people who have no experience whatsoever in negotiating. Engineers, accounts or managers used to directing their own nationals are usually completely lacking in foreign experience. When confronted with a different mindset, they are not equipped to capture the logic, intent and ethical stance of the other side. Often, when discussing the basic situation executives may be wasting time talking past each other. This leads us to cross-cultural bias.Cross-cultural bias
When we find ourselves seated opposite well-dressed individuals politely listening to our remarks, their calculators bearing the familiar brand names, we tend to assume that they see what we see, hear what we say and understand what our intent and motives are. In all likelihood they start with the same innocent assumptions, for they, too, have not yet penetrated our cosmopolitan veneer. But the two sets of mind are working in different ways, in different language regulated by different norms and certainly envisaging different goals.
Humanity has a common development up to a certain point and in this respect the negotiators opposite us know what we feel, desire and suspect. Like us, they love their young, feel anger at injustice, fear powers which seek to destroy them, want to be liked and are grateful for favours and kindness. The average Chines, German, Japanese or American will rarely deviate from this inherited pattern. That can be the extent of our trust, both in a social and business environment. Now deviations of attitude and view are certain and we must be on our guard during the meeting to avoid irritants or outright offence, establish mutually understood facts and know when to ‘agree to disagree’, simply because the other culture cannot accept or even see our point of view. National character and negotiation
Even before the meeting begins, the divergences of outlook are exerting decisive influence on the negotiation to come. If we take tree cultural groups as an example – American, Japanese and Latin-American – the hierarchy of negotiating objectives are likely to be as in the Table below:
|US||JAPAN ||LATIN AMERICA|
|1. Current deal ||1. Harmonious relationships and ‘direction taking’ ||1. National ‘honour’|
|2. Short-term profit and rapid growth ||2. Securing market share ||2. Personal prestige of chief negotiator|
|3. Consistent profit ||3. Long-term profit ||3. Long-term relationship|
|4. Relationships with partner ||4. Current deal || 4. Current deal|
Americans are deal-oriented, as they see it as a present opportunity which must be seized. American prosperity was built on opportunities quickly taken and the immediate profit is seen as the paramount reality. Today, shareholders’ expectation of dividends creates rolling forecasts which put pressure on US executives to deal now in order to fulfil their quarterly figures. For the Japanese, the current project or proposal is a trivial item in comparison with the momentous decision they have to make about whether or not to enter into a lasting business relationship with the foreigners.
The Latin Americans, particularly if they are from a country such as Mexico or Argentina (where memories of US exploitation or interference are a back ground to discussion), are anxious to establish notions of equality of standing and respect for their team’s national characteristics before getting down the business of making money. Like the Japanese, they seek a long-term relationship, although they will inject into this a greater personal input than their group-thinking eastern counterparts.
This ‘master programming’ supplied by our culture not only prioritises our concerns in different ways, but makes it difficult for us to ‘see’ the priorities or intention pattern of others.
Stereotyping is one of the ‘flaws’ in our master programme, often leading us to false assumptions. Here are three examples:
1) French refusal to compromise indicates obstinacy.
(Reality: French people see no reason to compromise if their logic stands undefeated.)
2) Japanese negotiators can’t make decisions.
(Reality: the decision was already made before the meeting, by consensus. The Japanese see meetings as an occasion for presenting decisions, not changing them.)
3) The Mexican senior negotiators are too ‘personal’ in conducting negotiations.
(Reality: their ‘personal’ position reflects their position of authority within the power structure back home.)The social setting
French, Spaniards, most Latin-Americans and Japanese regard a negotiation as a social ceremony to which are attached important considerations of venue, participants, hospitality and protocol, timescale, courtesy of discussion and the ultimate significance of the session. Americans, Australians, Britons and Scandinavians have a much more pragmatic view and are less impacted by the social aspects of business meetings. The Germans and Swiss are somewhere in between.
US executives, although outwardly smiling and friendly, generally tend to get the session over with as quickly as possible, with entertaining and protocol kept at a minimum. Mutual profit is the object of the exercise and Americans send technically competent people to drive the deal through. They persuade with facts and figures and expect some give and take, horse-trading when necessary. They will be argumentative to the point of rudeness in deadlock and regard confrontation and in-fighting as conductive to progress. No social egos are on the line – if they win, they win; if they lose, what the hell, too bad.
Senior Mexican negotiators cannot lose to Americans, least of all to technicians. Their social position is on the line and they did not enter into this negotiation to swap marbles with engineers and accounts. Their Spanish heritage causes them to view the meeting as a social occasion where everybody is to show greater respect for the dignity of the others, discuss grand outlines as opposed to petty details, speak at length in an unhurried, eloquent manner, and show sincerity of intent while maintaining a modicum of discretion to retain some privacy of view.
Japanese view the session as an occasion to ratify ceremonially decisions which have previously been reached by consensus. They are uncomfortable both with Mexican rhetoric and American argumentativeness, although they are closer to the Latins in their acceptance of protocol, lavish entertainment and preservation of dignity. As befits a social occasion, Japanese will be led by a senior executive who sets standards of courtesy and deference. He may have no technical competence, but represents the weighty consensus which backs his authority.
The French view the setting of the negotiation both as a social occasion and a forum for their own cleverness. Their sense of history primes them for the traditional French role of international mediator. Their leader will be their best speaker, usually highly-educated and self-assured. It will require a skilful American, Briton or Japanese to best him or her in debate. The leader will be unimpressed by American aggressive ploys and Cartesian logic will reduce ‘muddling-through’ Englishmen and belly-talking Japanese to temporary incoherence. This is not a session for give and take, but for presenting well-formulated solutions. Lavish French hospitality will compensate for sitting through lengthy speeches. Scandinavians, while relatively at home with Americans and Anglo-Saxons and familiar enough with German bluntness and protocol, have little feel for the social nuances displayed by Latins and Japanese. In their straight-forward egalitarian cultures a business meeting is for business to be conducted without regard to social status. Although more polite than Americans, Scandinavians have difficulty in settling down to a role in meetings where social competence dominates technical know-how. Values and self-image
Ones the talks begin, the values, phobias and rituals of the particular cultural groups soon make themselves evident. For the Americans, time is money and they wish to compress as much action and decision making as possible into the hours available. They rely on statistical data and personal drive to achieve this. The Dutch, Finns and Swiss, although somewhat less headlong, will be similarly concerned with the time/ efficiency equation. The Germans will place emphasis on thoroughness, punctuality and meeting deadlines, making sure they always complete their action chains. For this they require full information and context and, unlike Latins, will leave nothing ‘in the air’.
The French give pride of place to logic and rational argument. The aesthetics of the discussion are important to them and this will be reflected in their dress sense, choice of venue, imaginative debating style and preoccupation with proper form. The Japanese have their own aesthetic norms, also requiring proper form, which in their case is bound up with a complex set of obligations (vertical, horizontal and circular). In discussion they value creation of harmony and quiet ‘groupthink’ above all else. The British also give priority to quiet reasonable, diplomatic discussion. Their preoccupation with ‘fair play’ often comes to the fore and they like to see this as a yardstick for decision making. Latins place emphasis on personal relationships, ‘honourable’ confidence and the development of trust between the parties. This is a slow process and they require an unhurried tempo to enable them to get to know their counterparts. This is well understood by the Japanese, but conflicts with the American desire for quick progress.
Self-image is part and parcel of value perception and negotiators see themselves in a light which may never reach their foreign counterpart, although their playing of the role may irritate. English people often assume a condescending, abitrarial role which is a carry-over from the day when they settled disputes among the subjects of Her Majesty’s Empire. They may still see themselves as judges of situations which can be controlled with calm firmness and funny stories. The French have an equally strong sense of history and consider themselves the principal propagators of western European culture. This encourages them to take a central role in most discussions and they tend to ‘hold the floor’ longer than their counterparts would wish.
Latin Americans see themselves as exploited by the US and they display heightened defensive sensitivity which may often delay progress. They consider themselves culturally superior to North Americans and resent the lattes’ position of power and dominance.
The Japanese, on the other hand, are comfortable with American power –as victors in the Second World War they earned the number one spot. Inequality is basic in both Japanese and Chinese philosophies and the former are quite satisfied with the number two spot for the time being. The Japanese see themselves as far-sighted negotiators and courteous conversationalists. They have no aspirations to dominate discussion any more than they have towards moral world or even Asian leadership. They are privately convicted, however, of their uniqueness of which one facet is intellectual superiority. Unlike the French, they base this belief not on intellectual verbal prowess, but on the power of strong intuition. Decision making
Negotiations lead to decisions. How these are made, how long they take to be made and how final they are once made are all factors which will depend on the cultural group involved.
Americans love making decisions as these usually lead to action and they are primarily action oriented. The French love talking about decisions which may or may not be made in future. If their reasoned arguments do not produce what in their eyes is a logical solution, then they will delay decisions for days or weeks if necessary.
Japanese hate making decisions and prefer to let decisions be made for them by gradually building up a weighty consensus. In their case, a decision may take months. This exasperates Americans and many northern Europeans, but the Japanese insist that big decisions take time. They see American negotiators as technicians making a series of small decisions to expedite one (perhaps relatively unimportant) deal. Once the Japanese have made their decisions, however, they expect their American partner to move like lightning towards implementation. This leads to further exasperation.
What westerners fail to understand is that Japanese, during the long, painstaking process of building a consensus, are simultaneously making preparations for the implementation of the business. The famous ringi-sho system of Japanese decision making is one of the most democratic procedures of an otherwise autocratic structure. In many western countries action is usually initiated at the top. In Japan younger or lower-ranking people often propose ideas which are developed by middle management and ultimately shown to the president. There is a long, slow process during which many meetings are held to digest the new idea and at length a draft will be made to be passed round for all to see. Each person is invited to attach his or her seal of approval so that unanimity of agreement is already assumed before the president confirms it. He will not do this lightly since he, not middle management, will have to resign if there is a catastrophe. To ask a Japanese negotiator during a meeting to take ‘another direction’ is quite unacceptable. No hunches or sudden change-abouts here.
Mediterranean and Latin-American teams look to their leader to make decisions and do not question his personal authority. His decision making, however, will not be as impromptu or arbitrary as it seems. Latins, like Japanese, tend to bring a cemented-in position to the negotiating table, which is that of the power structure back home. This contrasts strongly with the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian willingness to modify stances continuously during the talk if new openings are perceived.
French negotiators seldom reach a decision on the first day. French dislike such interim summaries, since every item on the agenda may be affected by later discussion. Only at the end can everything fit into the Grand Design. Short-term decisions are seen as of little consequence. Ethics
Once a decision has been made, the question then arises as to how final or binding it is. Anglo-Saxons and Germans see a decision, once it has been entered into the minutes of a meeting, as an oral contract which will shortly be formalised in a written, legal document. Ethically, one sticks to one’s decisions. Agenda items which have been agreed on are not to be resurrected or rediscussed once a tick has been put against them.
Neither Japanese nor southern Europeans see anything wrong, ethically, in going back on items previously agreed. Chop and change holds no terrors for many cultures. The Japanese consider it would be unethical to insist on a decision which had been rendered invalid or irrelevant by rapidly changing circumstances.
The French show lack of respect for adherence to agenda points or early mini-decisions. This is due not so much to their concern about changing circumstances as to the possibility that, as the discussions progress, Latin imagination will spawn clever new ideas, uncover new avenues of approach, improve and embellish accords which later may seem naïve or rudimentary. For them a negotiating is often a brainstorming exercise. Brainwaves must be accommodated! Italians, Spanish, Portuguese and South Americans all share this attitude. Contracts
Different ethical approaches or standards reveal themselves in the way diverse cultures view written contracts. Americans, British, Germans, Swiss and Finns are among those who regard a written agreement at something which, if not holy, is certainly final. For the Japanese, on the other hand, the contract which they were uncomfortable in signing anyway is, in their eyes, a statement of intent. They will adhere to it as best they can, but will not feel bound by it if market conditions suddenly change, anything in it contradicts common sense, or they feel ‘cheated’ or legally trapped by it. If the small print turns out to be rather nasty, they will ignore or contravene it without qualms of conscience. Many problems arise between Japanese and US firms on account of this attitude. The Americans love detailed written agreements covering themselves against all contingencies with legal redress. The Japanese regard contingencies to be force majeure and consider that contracts should be sensibly reworked and mofidied at another meeting or negotiation.
The French tend to be precise in the drawing up of contracts, but other Latins require more flexibility in adhering to them. An Italian or Argentinian sees the contract as an ideal scheme in the best of worlds, which sets out the prices, delivery dates, standards of quality and expected gain, or a fine project which has been discussed. But we do not live in the best of worlds and the outcome we can realistically expect will fall somewhat short of the actual terms agreed. Delivery of payment may be late, there may be heated exchange of letters or faxes, but things will not be so bad that further deals with the partners are completely out of the question. A customer who pays six months late is better than one who doesn’t pay at all. A foreign market, however volatile, may still be a better alternative to a stagnating or dead-end domestic one. Propriety
If Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavians have a problem with the ethics of volatility, they have an even greater one with those of propriety. Which culture or authority can deliver the verdict on acceptable standards of behaviour or appropriate conduct of business?
Italian flexibility in business often leads Anglo-Saxons to think they are ‘dishonest’. They frequently bend rules, break or ‘get round’ some laws and put a very flexible interpretation on certain agreements, controls and regulations. There are many grey areas where short cuts are, in Italian eyes, a matter of common sense. In a country where excessive bureaucracy can hold ‘business’ up for months, smoothing the palm of an official or even being related to a minister is not a sin. It is done in most countries, but in Italy they talk about it.
French, Portuguese or Arab hosts will interlard the negotiation sessions with feasting far superior to that offered by the Scandinavian canteen or British pub lunch. Expense-account-culture Japanese would consider themselves inhospitable if they had not taken their visiting negotiators on the restaurant nigh-club circuit and showered them with the usual expensive gifts.
For Anglo-Saxons or Scandinavians would openly condone making a covert payment to an opposing negotiator, but in practice this is not an uncommon occurrence when competition is fierce. Compromise
It is not uncommon for negotiations to enter a difficult stage where the teams get bogged down or even find themselves in deadlock. When such situations occur between nationals of one culture (for a variety of reasons), there is usually a well-tried mechanism which constitutes an escape route whereby momentum can be regained without loss of face for either side. Deadlocks can be broken by, for instance, changing negotiators or venue, adjourning the session, or ‘repackaging’ the deal. Arab teams will take a recess for prayer and come back with a more conciliatory stance; Japanese delegations will bring in senior executives 'to see what the problem is’; Swedish opponents will go out drinking together; Finns will retire to the sauna.
These mechanisms are not always available in international negotiations. The nature of the deadlock, moreover, may be misconstrued by both parties as, for instance, when French insist on adhering to their logic which the Japanese have misunderstood or completely failed to follow. The mechanism used by Anglo-Saxon is usually that of compromise. The British, with their supposedly innate sense of fair play, see themselves as the champions of compromise. The Scandinavians are very British in this respect, while the American willingness to compromise is seen in their give-and-take tactics, deriving from the bartering traditions in US history.
Other cultures, however, do not see compromise in the same favourable light and remain unconvinced of its shining merit. In French eyes ‘give and take’ is Anglo-speak for ‘wheel and deal’, which they see as an inelegant, crude tactic for chiselling away at the legitimate edifice of reason they have so painstakingly constructed. ‘Yes, let’s all be reasonable’, they say, ‘but what is irrational in what we have already said?’
Among the Latins, attitude towards compromise vary. The Italians, although they respect logic almost as much as the French, know that our world is indeed irrational and pride themselves on their flexibility. They are closely followed by the Portuguese who, in their long history of trading with the English, have acquired close familiarity with Anglo-Saxon habits. The Spaniards’ obsession with dignity makes it hard for them to climb down without any good reason. South Americans see compromise as a threat to their dignity and several nations, including Argentina, Mexico and Panama, display obstinacy in conceding anything to ‘insensitive, arrogant Americans’.
Compromise may be defined as finding a middle course and, to this end, both the Japanese and Chinese make good use of ‘go-betweens’. This is less acceptable to westerners who prefer more direct contact (even confrontation) to seek clarity. Confrontation is anathema to orientals and most Latins and disliked by Brits and Swedes. Only Germans (‘the truth is the truth’), Finns and Americans might rank directness, bluntness and honesty above subtle diplomacy in business discussions. Arabs also like to use ‘go-between’. The repeated offer of King Hussein of Jordan to mediate in the dispute between Saddam Hussein and George Bush unfortunately fell on deaf ears, even through, as a thoroughly westernised Arab (with British and American wives to boot) he was the ideal middleman for that particular cross-cultural situation.
The problem remains that intelligent, meaningful compromise is only possible when one is able to see how the other side prioritise their goals and views the related concepts of dignity, conciliation and reasonableness. These are culturally affected concepts, therefore emotions bound and prickly. However, an understanding of them, and a suitable step or reaction to accommodate them, form the unfailing means of unblocking the impasse. Logic
French debating logic is Cartesian in its essence, which means that all presuppositions and traditional opinions must be cast aside from the outset, as they possibly untrustworthy. Discussion must be based on one or two indubitable truths on which one can build through mechanical and deductive processes to clarify further truths and knowledge. Descartes decreed that all problems should be divided into as many parts as possible and the review should be so complete that nothing could be omitted or forgotten. Given these instructions and doctrine, it is hardly surprising that French negotiators appear complacently confident and long-winded. They have a hypothesis to build are not in a hurry.
Opponents may indeed doubt some of the French ‘indubitable truths’ and ask who is qualified to establish the initial premises. Descartes has an answer to this: rational intellect is not rare, it can be found in anyone who has been given help in clear thinking (French education) and is free from prejudice. What is more, conclusions reached through Cartesian logic ‘compel assent by their own natural clarity’. There, in essence, is the basis for French self-assurance and unwillingness to compromise.
Fellow French people would certainly meet thrust with counter-thrust, attempt to defeat the other side’s logic. Many cultures feel little inclined to do this. In Japanese – easy meat to corner with logic – have no stomach for arguing or public demonstrations of cleverness. During the perorations of the other side, their internal telepathy system has been hard at work – their reactions and conclusions are ventral and visceral, emotional and intuitive. They, like some other Orientals, acquire convictions without always knowing why – as occasionally do the ‘muddling-through’ British.
Anglo-Saxons, particularly Americans, show a preference for Hegelian precepts. According to Hegel, people who first present diametrically opposed points of view ultimately agree to accept a new and broader view that does justice to the substance of each. The thesis and antithesis come together to form a synthesis (compromise). Everything must have an opposite – were it not so, nothing could come into existence. The essence of this cause-and-effect doctrine is activity and movement, on which Americans thrive. An American negotiator is always happy to be the catalyst, ever willing to make the first move to initiate action.
Chinese logic is different again – the background is Confucian philosophy. They consider the French search for truth less important than the search for virtue. To do what is right is better than to do what is logical. They also may show disdain for western insistence that something is black or white, that opposite courses of action must be right or wrong. Chinese consider both courses may be right if they are both virtuous. Confucianism decrees moderation in all things (including opinion and argument); therefore, behaviour towards others must be virtuous. Politeness must be observed and others must be protected from loss of face. Taoist teaching encourages Chinese to show generosity of spirit in their utterances. The strong are supposed to protect the weak; so the Chinese negotiator will expect you not to take advantage of your superior knowledge or financial strength! Another dimension of Chinese thinking is feng shui (wind-and-water superstition) which means that the seat arrangements, the position of the furniture, alignment of doors and even the placing of mirrors will have significance for Chinese negotiators. Each individual is also supposed to possess the qualities of the animal of the year he or she was born. For example, the horse means stamina, the snake wisdom, the rat bravery and cleverness – so negotiators, beware!Language
Negotiator, unless they are using interpreters, need a common language. As English is now the language of diplomacy as well as international trade, they think they have one. English can, however, be a communication link or a semi-invisible barrier. When Americans use in discussion words like ‘democratic’, ‘fair’, ‘reasonable’, ‘common sense’, ‘equitable’, ‘makes business sense’, they often fail to realise that Japanese understand quite different things under these headings and that most Latins will instinctively distrust each word listed above. ‘Democracy’ has a different meaning in every country; American ‘evidence’ is statistical, in many cultures it is emotional; in Russia the phrase ‘makes business sense’ has virtually no meaning. Language is a poor communication tool unless each word or phrase is seen in its original cultural context.
The venue itself may have positive or negative implications. Are we ‘home’ or ‘away’? Are we seated comfortably? (French negotiators are said to arrange lower seats for their opponents!) American businesspeople are used to sitting in a confrontational style, facing their interlocutors across the table and maintaining challenging eye contact, while Japanese by contact like to sit side by side and stare at a common point (often a blank wall or the floor), punctuating their remarks with occasional sideways glances.
Hierarchy of seating is also important, but of more significance in the ‘early stages of discussion are the negotiators’ physical and social attitudes.
Each culture has its own concept of the ‘space bubble’ – the personal space the individual requires to be able to think, talk and gesture in comfort.
Related to the ‘distance of comfort’ is the question of touching. The Spaniard’s grip on your upper arm shows confidence in you, an African may continue to hold your hand when talking to you, but touching of any kind is anathema to Japanese, who regard it as unhygienic; it is little loved by Finns, Swedes, Germans, British and many Orientals. American informality
Americans are ambivalent in this respect, normally occupying a space bubble equal in size to that demanded by most Anglo-Saxons, but only too frequently indulging in pumping hands, slapping backs and playful punches, which score no points whatsoever with Japanese, Germans and French. The last thing the Japanese wants, on first meeting, is to be manhandled (even in a friendly manner); German senior executives have no wish whatsoever to be addressed by their first names; French negotiators abhor people who take their jackets off and loosen their ties during the first encounter. Other American habits such as chewing gum, slouching in their chairs, showing the soles of their shoes as they cross their legs, constitute ‘cultural noise’ of the first order. Japanese and Finns, on the other hand, can give rise to unease in their counterparts with ‘absence of noise’ (in their eyes, constructive silence).
Dress, formal and informal, correct and innappropriate, can also give negotiators false impressions of the seriousness or casualness of the other side. Gestures (of the Latin variety), can denote overemotion or unreliability to northerners. Impassive faces and absence of body language can cause Latins to suspect cunning or slyness in Japanese, and the lack of feed back from the politely listening Finn can disorientate them. Silence
Listening habits can clearly play an important part in the negotiating process. Finns and Japanese consider they make an important contribution to the discussion with their culture-oriented silence! ‘Those who know do not speak; those who speak do not know’ is a second-century Chinese proverb which the Finns, like the Japanese, do not quarrel with. In Finland, as in Japan, silence is not equated with failure to communicate, but is an integral part of social interaction. In both countries what is not said is regarded as important and lulls in conversation are considered restful, friendly and appropriate. Silence means that you listen and learn; talking a lot merely expresses your cleverness, perhaps egoism and arrogance. Silence protects your individualism and privacy; it also shows respect for the individualism of others. In Finland and Japan it is considered impolite or inappropriate to force one’s opinions on others – it is more appropriate to nod in agreement, smile quietly, avoid opinionated argument or discord.
The American habit of ‘thinking aloud’, the French stage performance, the Italian baring of the soul in intimate chatter, the rhetoric of the Arabs – all these are communicative gambits designed to gain the confidence of the listener, to share ideas which can then be discussed and modified. The Finn and the Japanese listen with a kind of horror, for in their countries a statement is a sort of commitment to stand by, not to change, twist or contradict in the very next breath. Body language
Facial expressions and loudness of voice or manner are also cultural factors which may disturb interlocutors. Members of a Spanish delegation may argue fiercely with each other while opponents are present, causing Japanese to think ‘they are fighting’. Orientals are bemused when the same ‘quarrelling Spaniards’ pat each other like lifelong friends a few moments later. Smiles, while signifying good progress when on the faces of British, Scandinavians or Germans, might mean embarrassment or anger when adopted by Japanese and often appear insincere in the features of the constantly beaming American. Finns and Japanese often look doleful when perfectly happy, whereas gloom on an Arab face indicates true despondency. The frequent bowing of the Japanese is seen as ingratiating by Americans, while the hearty nose-blowing of westerners in public is abhorred by Japanese, who invariably leave the room to do this. The space bubble
People from reactive and linear-active cultures are generally uncomfortable when confronted by the theatrical, excitable gestures and behaviour of the multi-actives. The feeling of discomfort generally begins at the outset when the ‘space bubble’ is invaded. Orientals, Nordics, Anglo-Saxon and Germanic people mostly regard space within 1.2 metres of the self as inviolable territory for strangers, with a smaller bubble of 0.5 metres in radius for close friends and relatives. Mexicans happily close within half a metre of strangers for business discussions.
When a Mexican positions himself 0.5 metres away from an Englishman, he is ready to talk business. The Englishman sees him in English personal space and backs off to 1.2 metres. In doing so, he relegates the Mexican to the South American ‘public zone’ (1.2 metres) and the latter thinks the Englishman finds his physical presence distasteful or does not want to talk business. For a Mexican to talk business over a yawning chasm of 1.2 metres is like an English person shouting out confidential figures to someone at the other end of the room. Different types of body language
Multi-actives – French, Mediterranean people, Arabs, Africans, South and Central Americans – possess a whole variety of gestures and facial expressions, largely unused and often misconstrued or disliked by reactive, linear-active and data-oriented cultures.
Finns and Japanese do not seem to have any body language – an assumption which administers cultural shock to first-time visitors in Finland and Japan. Finns and Japanese do use body language which is well understood by fellow nationals in each country. Finns and Japanese have to be good ‘body watchers’ as the verbal messages in their countries are kept at a minimum. In the Finnish and Japanese cultures, upbringing and training discourage gesticulations, exaggerated facial expressions and uninhibited manifestations of glee, sorrow, love, hate, hope, disappointment or triumph. In both societies the control and disciplined management of such emotions leads to the creation of a much more restrained type of body language which is so subtle that it goes unnoticed by the foreign eye. Finns and Japanese are able to detect non-verbal messages in each other’s culture, as their own nationals behave in a similar manner. As Finns and Japanese are accustomed to looking for minimal signs, the blatantly demonstrative body language of Italians, Arabs and South Americans produces strong culture shock for them. It is as if someone used to listening to the subtle melodies of Chopin or Mozart were suddenly thrown into a modern disco. The danger is, of course, that over-reaction sets in – a judgmental reaction which causes Japanese to consider Americans and Germans as charging bulls and Finns to see French as too ‘clever’, Italians as over-emotional and even Danes as a bit slick.
The body language of multi-active people often incorporates the following features.Eyes
Eyes are among the more expressive parts of the body. In multi-active cultures, where power distance between people is greater, speakers will maintain close eye contact all the time they deliver their message. This is particularly noticeable in Spain, Greece and Arab countries. Such close eye contact (Finns and Japanese would call it ‘staring’) implies dominance and reinforces one’s position and message. In Japan this is considered improper and rude. Japanese avoid eye contact 90 per cent of the time, looking at a speaker’s neck while listening and at their own feet or knees when they speak themselves.
In great power-distance societies, when anyone cracks a joke or says something controversial, all the subordinates’ eyes will switch immediately to the chief personage to assess his reaction. This is less evident in northern countries where head-and-eye switching would be much more restrained, sometimes avoided.
Mediterranean people use their eyes in many different ways for effect. These include glaring (to show anger), glistening eyes (to show sincerity), winking (very common in Spain and France to imply conspiracy) and the eyelash flutter (used by women to reinforce persuasion). Eyebrows are also raised and lowered much more frequently than in northern societies, again to show surprise, disapproval, aggression etc.
Weeping is another form of body language little used by monochronic cultures for communication and almost unknown in Finland, Korea and Japan. Weeping is seen frequently in Latin and Arabian societies, even occasionally used in moments of drama in the UK (Winston Churchill was a memorable public weeper). Biologists tell us that weeping is good for us, not only to relieve tension, but tears apparently release excess chemicals from the body and even contain benign bacteria which protect the eye from infection. Nose and ears
French and Hispanic people indulge in the nose twitch, snort or sniff, to express alertness, disapproval or disdain respectively. Portuguese tug their ear lobes to indicate tasty food, though this gesture has sexual connotations in Italy. In Spain the same action means someone is paying for their drinks and in Malta it signifies an informer. It is best to recognise these signs, but not embark on the risky venture of attempting to imitate them. Mouth
It is said that the mouth is one of the busiest parts of the human body, except in Finland where it is hardly used (except for eating and drinking). This is, of course, not strictly true, but most societies convey a variety of expressive moods by the way they cast their lips. De Gaulle, Saddam Hussein, Marilyn Monroe and James Stewart made the mouth work overtime to reinforce their message or appeal. The tight-lipped Finn shrinks away from such communicative indulgences as the mouth shrug (French), the pout (Italian), the broad, trust-inviting smile of the American, or even the fixed polite smile of the Oriental. Kissing one’s fingertips to indicate praise (Latin) or blowing at one’s finger-tip (Saudi Arabian) to request silence are gestures alien to the Nordic and Asian cultures. Shoulders
Non-demonstrative people living in another culture for a prolonged period can progress to an understanding of demonstrative gestures. Multi-active peoples have very mobile shoulders, normally kept still in northern societies. The Gallic shoulder shrug is well known from our observations of Maurica Chevalier, Jean Gabin and Yves Montand. Latins keep their shoulders back and down when tranquil and observant, push them up and forward when alarmed, anxious or hostile. Arms
Arms are used little by Nordics during conversation. In Italy, Spain and South America they are an indispensable element in one’s communicative weaponry. Frequent gesticulating with the arms is one of the features which northerners find hardest to tolerate or imitate. It is inherently associated in the northern mind with insincerity, overdramatisation, therefore unreliability. As far as touching is concerned, however, the arm is the most neutral of body zones and even Englishmen will take guests by the elbow to guide them through doorways or indulge in the occasional arm pat to deserving subordinates or approaching friends. Hands
The hands are among the most expressive parts of the body. Kant called them ‘the visible parts of the brain’. Italians watching Finnish hands may be forgiven for thinking that Finns have sluggish brains. It is undeniable that northern peoples use their hands less expressively than Latins or Arabs, who recognize them as a brilliant piece of biological engineering. There are so many signals given by the use of the hands that we cannot consider them all here. Among the most common are ‘thumbs up’, used in many cultures but so ubiquitous in Brazil they drive you mad with it, hands clasped behind back to emphasize a superior standing (see Prince Philip and various other Royals and company presidents). The akimbo posture (hands on hips) denotes rejection or defiance, especially in Mediterranean cultures. Legs
As we move even further down the body, less evident but equally significant factors come into play. Northerners participate in leg-language like everybody else. As no speech is required, it inflicts no strain on them. In general the ‘legs together’ position signifies basically defensiveness, against a background of formality, politeness or subordination. Most people have their legs together when applying for a job. It indicates correctness of attitude. This position is quite common for Anglo-Saxons at first meetings, but changes to ‘legs crossed’ as discussions become more informal. Formal negotiators such as Germans or Japanese can go through several meetings maintaining the ‘leg together’ position. There are at least half a dozen different ways of crossing your legs, the most formal being crossing ankles only, the average being crossing the knees, and the most relaxed and informal being the ankle-on-knee cross so common in North America.
When it comes to walking, the English and Nordics walk in a fairly neutral manner, avoiding the Latin bounce, the American swagger and the German march. It is more of a brisk plod, especially brisk in winter when the Spanish dawdle would lead to possible frostbite. Feet
It is said that the feet are the most honest part of the body: although we are self-conscious about our speech or eye and hand movements, we actually forget what our feet are doing most of the time. The honest Nordics, therefore, send out as many signals with their feet as the Latins do. Foot messages include tapping on the floor (boredom), flapping up and down (want to escape), heel lifting (desperate to escape), multi-kicking from a knees-crossed position (desire to kick the other speaker). Nordic reticence sometimes reduces the kicking action to wiggling of the toes up and down inside shoes, but the desire is the same. Foot stamping in anger is common in Italy and other Latin countries, but virtually unused north of Paris. Body language in business
Some forms of sales training involve a close study of body language, especially in those societies where it is demonstrative. Italian salespeople, for instance, are told to pay great attention to the way their ‘customers’ sit during a meeting. If they are leaning forward on the edge of their chair they are interested in the discussion or proposal. If they sit right back, they are bore, or confident to wait for things to turn their way. Buttoned jackets, and arms or legs tightly crossed, betray defensiveness and withdrawal. A salesperson should not try to close his sale in such a situation. Neither should a proposal be made to someone who is tapping with feet or fingers – they should be asked to speak. Italian salespeople are taught to sit as close as they can to their customers when attempting to close the deal. Latin people tend to buy more from a person sitting close to them than from a distance. Solutions
Cross-cultural factors will continue to influence international negotiation and there is no general panacea of strategies which ensure quick understanding. The only possible solutions lie in a close analysis of the likely problems. These will vary in the case of each negotiation, therefore the combination of strategies required to facilitate the discussions will be specific on each occasion.