Advice for Bargaining Abroad: Tips on How To Overcome Cultural Barriers

How to overcome cultural barriers and conduct negotiations at a distance

By on / Business Negotiations

The Bargaining Scenario – How to Overcome Cultural Barriers

Imagine that you’re the CEO of a sports clothing manufacturer based in Chicago. You recently traveled to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to meet with a distributor who has a rich and diverse network in the European sports market.


Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

During the business trip, you both express enthusiasm about the possibility of a joint venture and agree to give the potential alliance more thought.

Back home, you learn that one of your competitors has discussed similar plans with the same distributor.

Though you don’t want to lose a potential alliance, you’re reluctant to fly back to Amsterdam to take immediate action.

You could pick up the phone, but given time and scheduling differences, it could be days before you reach the distributor.

You’re not sure whether sending an email or leaving a voice-mail message is the right option, either.

The Resolution

It’s a dilemma that negotiators face with increasing frequency: growing economic globalization offers a multitude of new opportunities yet often necessitates alternatives to face-to-face meetings, such as phone calls, email messages, video-conferencing, or instant messaging.

Newly available technologies can be powerful negotiating tools that save time and money, but if not managed properly, they also come with some predictable pitfalls, such as misunderstandings and mutual distrust. What’s more, your choice of communication medium is likely to affect the quality of the relationship, the amount of information shared, and the efficiency of the negotiated agreement.

In this article, we present a range of negotiation strategies about how to overcome cultural barriers and to help you navigate various types of communication mediation in long-distance negotiations. Specifically, our “MEDIA approach” advises negotiators to:

  1. Manage effects of communication characteristics
  2. Enrich technology and relations
  3. DIAgnose the other party’s comfort zone in relation to your goals

1. Manage the Effects of Communication Characteristics

Different communication media vary in terms of richness, or their potential to convey the sensation of social presence, which can be so important in business negotiation:

  • A phone conversation may allow you to feel psychologically close to a foreign partner despite the fact that the two of you are speaking across the globe
  • Videoconferencing, which adds visual cues to the exchange, may contribute even more of a social presence
  • The impersonal nature of an email exchange, on the other hand, may leave parties feeling distant

A second dimension underlying media is their level of synchronicity, or the extent to which individuals work together on the same activity at the same time.

Phone calls, videoconferencing, and computerized chats allow negotiators to respond immediately to each other’s actions and words, whereas asynchronous media such as email, voicemail, and fax messages delay the communication process, with potentially disastrous consequences.

According to insiders, the extensive use of asynchronous media (voicemail and email) by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was partially responsible for the significant delays in emergency assistance – and the desperation and death that followed.

How to Overcome Cultural Barriers – Synchronicity of Communication in Business Negotiations

Media richness and synchronicity have a strong impact on negotiation strategies.

In a recent research review, Roderick I. Swaab (one of the authors) and Victoria Medvec and Daniel Diermeier of Northwestern University discovered that vocal cues, visual cues, and synchronicity all promote more efficient outcomes by facilitating information sharing and the use of complex negotiation techniques such as making multiple equivalent simultaneous offers (MESOs).

Negotiators leave less money on the table when they are able to pick up clear social cues. Furthermore, Swaab and colleagues found that vocal cues most effectively improve relations between negotiators and thus reduce the likelihood of impasse. By contrast, visual cues available in videoconferencing and the synchronicity of instant messaging did not contribute to the development of positive relationships.

Clearly, when preparing to negotiate, you should choose a medium that suits your purposes; above all, strive to enhance the negotiation with appropriate communication cues.

2. Enrich Technology and Relations

It may seem an obvious step, but professionals often overlook the importance of familiarizing themselves with a particular technology before they start to negotiate.

You don’t need to master every available communication media, but we do encourage you to improve your ability to deal with – and without – various characteristics, such as the presence or absence of audio and visual cues.

And, of course, you’ll want to avoid embarrassing situations, such as being unable to place a conference call.

Compared with email communication, instant messaging enables negotiators to take advantage of intricate arguments and thus claim more value, researchers Jeffrey Loewenstein of the University of Texas at Austin, Michael Morris of the Columbia School of Business, Agnish Chakravati of Microsoft, Leigh Thompson of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, and Shirli Kopelman of the University of Michigan School of Business have found.

For this reason, something as simple as increasing your typing speed can be a decisive factor in synchronous online negotiations. After all, when you type faster than your opponent, you gain more airtime and opportunities to exert influence.

You should consider introducing rules of engagement when beginning a negotiation in a particular medium.


Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

In an email negotiation, you might suggest a 48-hour response rule for any proposals made. Agreeing in advance to take turns “speaking” can also avoid miscommunication in a synchronous negotiation.

It also makes sense to devote time to enriching your relationship with the other party, both before and during the negotiation. Researchers Don Moore of Carnegie Mellon University, Janice Nadler of Northwestern University, and Leigh Thompson  have found that parties can overcome the diminished rapport inherent in an email negotiation by engaging in a short get-acquainted phone conversation beforehand.

Similarly, Swaab’s research shows that negotiators who communicate using collective pronouns promote a common bond (such as we, us, and our) in their online text-based negotiations are perceived as more friendly, obtain higher profits, and are more likely to be included in final deals than negotiators who use non-collective pronouns.

In addition, and most successfully among younger negotiators, a simple emoticon can overcome misunderstandings by conveying a friendly tone.

3. How to Overcome Cultural Barriers – Diagnose the Other Party’s Comfort zone and Your Goals

Now that you understand the effects of various media characteristics and how to enrich them, it’s almost time to negotiate – but not until you’ve diagnosed the other side’s comfort zone as it relates to your own negotiation goals.

First, consider how much your counterparts might value certain communication characteristics

When it comes to establishing rapport, for example, some people rely on visual cues, particularly eye contact, more than others. Neuropsychological research shows that women value gazing more than men do; as a result, eye contact helps build relationships among women but could signal attempts to dominate among men.

In a similar vein, professor Susan Fusell of Carnegie Mellon University has found that people from collective cultures (such as India, China, and Singapore) prefer visual cues to build relationships, and, as a result, gain more from a videoconference than do those from individualistic cultures such as the United States.

Now match your knowledge of peoples’ preferences for certain cues with your negotiation goals.

If you’re striving to create maximum value for both sides (as we encourage you to do), try to negotiate in the other party’s preferred communication environment. Suppose that you know that your Dutch counterpart is uncomfortable speaking English; if so, an email negotiation may suit him best.

Comfort with the chosen medium will increase the likelihood that the other party will share his priorities and preferences.

In addition, when you let your counterpart choose the format, he’s more likely to appreciate – and reciprocate – the favor. By contrast, when you’re focused on claiming value in a short-term distributive negotiation, choose a medium that gives you an edge. If you know that someone lacks quickness under pressure, you might prefer instant messaging to prolonged email correspondence.


Discover step-by-step techniques for avoiding common business negotiation pitfalls when you download a copy of the FREE special report, Business Negotiation Strategies: How to Negotiate Better Business Deals, from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Related Business Negotiations Article: Training for Non-Face-to-Face Negotiations

Originally published in 2013.

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