Overcoming Cultural Barriers in Negotiation: How to Launch More Productive Cross-Cultural Negotiations

How different cultural perspectives impact bargaining strategies at the negotiation table

By on / International Negotiation

On February 28, 2014, Russian troops swarmed into Crimea following violent clashes between protesters and police in Kiev, Ukraine, and Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s abrupt departure from the country. Urging Russian president Vladimir Putin to retreat, Western leaders desperately searched for a way to help him “save face.”


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

It was a daunting task. Having made an incursion into a foreign land, Putin, they understood, would view retreat as a humiliating option for Russia. Indeed, some observers viewed the humiliation that Russia experienced as the Soviet Union dissolved, an event that Putin once described as a “catastrophe,” as the primary reason for his provocative act.

Even German chancellor Angela Merkel, who had established a strong rapport with Putin thanks in part to their shared ties to East Germany, was unable to convince him to back down from annexing Crimea. After one of her conversations with Putin, Merkel told U.S. president Barack Obama that Putin seemed to be in “another world.”

Divergent Worldviews and Negotiations: How to Bridge Divides at the Bargaining Table

A debate arose in Washington, according to the New York Times: Had Putin become mentally unhinged?

Or did he merely have a fundamentally divergent view of the world from that of the West, making it extremely difficult for the two sides to find common ground?

Though Merkel’s attempted negotiations with Putin are a high-stakes political case, her frustration hints at the difficulties that can arise even in more straightforward business negotiations conducted across cultures. When negotiators are from different countries or regions, their fundamentally different ways of looking at the world in general, and negotiation in particular, can contribute to conflict and stand in the way of agreement.

A better understanding of cultural differences can improve our ability to understand counterparts from other cultures and work with them more effectively, suggest researchers Soroush Aslani, Jimena Ramirez-Marin, Zhaleh Semnani-Azad, Jeanne M. Brett, and Catherine Tinsley.

Three Cultural Prototypes and Approaches to Negotiation

Specifically, theory and research that categorizes the world’s cultures into three prototypes, namely “dignity,” “face,” and “honor” cultures, can illuminate broad cultural differences in the way we approach negotiation, the team writes in a chapter in the Handbook of Research on Negotiation (Edward Elgar, 2013).

According to anthropologists, cultural differences often spring from our different histories: the varying geographical, political, and economic conditions in which our ancestors found themselves. In particular, two factors—population density and type of economy—determined whether a region developed a dignity, face, or honor culture. We examine each of these categories in turn and consider how recognizing them might help negotiators reach more satisfying agreements and resolve pressing conflicts.

Three Types of Culture and How They Impact Negotiating Styles

Negotiators from Dignity cultures: Independence and trust Dignity cultures, which include the United States, Canada, and Northern Europe, developed in societies built on agriculture with low population density. The ample availability of farmland turned food production into an individual rather than a collective effort. Consequently, dignity cultures tend to prize independence and free will rather than a reliance on others.

In dignity cultures, people strive to manage conflict rationally and directly while avoiding strong emotional reactions, research finds.

Dignity Cultures and Integrative Negotiations: A Preference for a Collaborative Approach to the Negotiation Table

Because dignity cultures typically are supported by an effective system of law and strong markets, members tend to trust others automatically and engage in mutually enhancing trades rather than behaving in a selfless, altruistic manner. This analytic, trusting mind-set leads members of dignity cultures to prefer a collaborative approach to negotiation. They explore one another’s interests and priorities by engaging in questions and answers (Q&A), according to Aslani and his team.

Negotiators from Face cultures: Cooperation and harmony Face cultures, found primarily in East Asian societies such as China and Japan, sprang up in agricultural regions with rapidly growing populations that required organized food production, a collective goal facilitated by cooperation and strong central governments. Face cultures have a reputation for social responsibility and great respect for elders and traditions. Cultural norms encourage people to save face and preserve harmony by avoiding direct confrontation, suppressing negative emotions, and deferring to authority.

A lack of trust, which characterizes face cultures, often leads negotiators to take an indirect approach to exploring the other side’s interests. Instead of directly probing their interests through Q&A, as members of dignity cultures tend to do, they take turns making and substantiating offers and judging one another’s reactions.

Negotiators from face cultures are just as effective at negotiating joint gains through this exchange of offers as negotiators who rely on Q&A, research shows. Overall, this research suggests that when trust between negotiators is low, you may achieve more by exchanging offers and backing them up than by directly trading information about your priorities and preferences.

Face Cultures and Multiple Equivalent Simultaneous Offers (MESOs) in Negotiation

Interestingly, a 2012 Gallup poll suggested that people from face cultures not only express fewer negative emotions (including stress, anger, and sadness) but also actually experience these emotions less often than members of dignity and honor cultures do. As a consequence, they are less likely to feel intimidated, distracted, or insulted during negotiation than are those from dignity or honor cultures.

When those from face cultures do experience and express negative emotions during talks, their typical negotiation strategy of learning by exchanging offers becomes less effective, research has found.

Negotiators from Honor cultures: Close ties and strong emotions Finally, honor cultures sprang up in regions with herding economies and low population density, including the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, and parts of southern Europe. Because herds are vulnerable to poaching, they can be difficult to defend.

Consequently, traits that promote theft deterrence became prevalent in honor cultures, including a strong defense of oneself and one’s family, reliance on a code of honor, and close family ties. Members tend to view insults and other conflicts as direct challenges to their status and to respond boldly and even aggressively to slights. Less negotiation research has been conducted on honor cultures than on dignity and face cultures.

However, some evidence suggests that people from honor cultures are more susceptible to betrayal aversion—that is, they may be quite reluctant to trust their counterparts for fear of being betrayed. In addition, the results of the Gallup poll mentioned earlier suggest that negotiators from honor cultures in the Middle East and Latin America experience negative emotions such as anger more often than negotiators from the other two cultural prototypes.

Protecting Honor and Building Trust at the Negotiation Table

Overall, negotiation research leads to the conclusion that negotiators from honor cultures may be easily distracted from the cognitive tasks of negotiation by the emotional need to protect their honor in the face of perceived slights.

Therefore, it may be particularly important to spend time building trust and managing conflict when negotiating with members of honor cultures.

Looking beyond prototypes (and stereotypes) in negotiation

Before we assume that recognizing prototypes is the key to unlocking potential in cross-cultural negotiations, it is critical to note that these are broad generalizations that rarely exist in their purest form in the real world, write Aslani and colleagues. Most societies are a blend of prototypes, and cultural divisions within a single nation are common.

The herding economy and wide-open spaces of the American Southwest, for instance, fostered an honor culture, while the more agricultural regions of the United States tend to resemble dignity cultures. And as technological and economic changes draw us closer together, cultural divisions begin to blur.

Moreover, individuals vary widely in the degree to which they adopt or reject their culture’s norms and ideals. An Egyptian architect, for example, may behave more like an architect from Tokyo or Rome than like a typical Egyptian businessperson. We are more likely to follow our own culture’s norms in the face of certain triggers, according to Columbia University professor Michael Morris. Limits on our attention, such as those imposed by multitasking and deadlines, can increase our tendency to make culturally based snap judgments. In addition, our cultural barriers to agreement may be especially high when we are negotiating in the midst of a crisis.

Finally, when negotiators from different cultures meet, they may adapt their behavior in an attempt to match their counterpart’s cultural style. A survey by Wendi L. Adair of the University of Waterloo, Canada, for example, found that experienced American and Japanese business negotiators adjusted their negotiating style too far toward the other side’s culture, resulting in confusion and misunderstandings.

Ironically, our efforts to understand one another can drive us apart. Is there a family resemblance? For all these reasons, it would be a mistake to give great weight to prototypes in our dealings with negotiators from other cultures, lest we begin to view them as stereotypical representatives of their group.

A more promising approach would be to consider whether or not our negotiating counterparts share a “family resemblance” with their culture of origin, as we understand it to be. Sizing up your counterpart’s culture should be just one element of your due diligence, alongside learning about her as an individual and analyzing the specific issues at stake in the negotiation at hand. You can do so by researching your counterpart’s profession, work history, negotiating experience, education, reputation, and areas of expertise both before and during the negotiation.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian president Vladimir Putin

Returning to Putin, the fact that the West seems largely puzzled by his motives even after years of on-and-off negotiation is striking. “With no meaningful rapport or trust between Obama and Putin, it’s nearly impossible to use high-level phone calls for actual problem solving,” Russia expert Andrew Weiss told the New York Times.

“Instead, it looks like we’re mostly posturing and talking past each other.” Though the roots of the crisis are complex, for business negotiators, the conflict suggests that taking time to build rapport before getting down to business can be especially important in cross-cultural negotiations.

The conflict also points to the value of attempting to address negotiators’ deepest concerns throughout crosscultural talks, when possible. In an interview with CBS News, Obama speculated that Putin had a “deeply held grievance” over the dissolution of the Soviet Union and “a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past.” Obama went on to say that Putin seemed to be “entirely misreading the West.”

In our own negotiations with people from other cultures, we would be wise to register potential threats to the other party’s dignity, face, and honor, then look for ways to restore trust and rapport. With the same goals in mind, we also have a responsibility to speak up when we ourselves feel slighted.

Related International Negotiation Article: Overcoming Cultural Barriers in Negotiations: The Importance of Culture and Etiquette in Bargaining Scenarios


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.

Adapted from “Launch More Productive Cross-Cultural Negotiations,” first published in the June 2014 issue of Negotiation Briefings.

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