Dealing with Cultural Barriers in Business Negotiations

How to overcome cultural barriers to communication

By on / Business Negotiations

cultural barriers

If you negotiate regularly on the job, you probably have engaged in multiple business negotiations with counterparts from other cultures. Negotiating across cultural barriers can significantly expand your organization’s reach and bring great rewards. Yet negotiating cross-culturally also can pose challenges, such as these:


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.


– Misunderstandings arising from language and cultural barriers.
– Conflicts caused by different ways of managing time.
– Accidental violations of one another’s cultural norms.

The following five ways of overcoming intercultural barriers will help you make the most of your cross-cultural business negotiations.

1. Research the other party’s culture.

Standard negotiation texts advise us to research the culture of our host or counterpart, including becoming aware of the culture’s customs, rituals, taboos, and so on. Do business negotiators greet one another with a handshake, a hug, or a bow? Should you be prepared for lengthy trust-building small talk or be ready to get right down to business? Such guidelines can help you avoid making potentially embarrassing or offensive faux pas and reduce cultural barriers, and they may also improve the efficiency of your business negotiations.

2. Consider the individual.

“If rule number one in an international negotiation is to know the other side’s culture, rule number two is to avoid overreliance on that knowledge,” writes Tufts University professor Jeswald W. Salacuse in his book Negotiating Life: Secrets for Everyday Diplomacy and Deal Making (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Just as you wouldn’t want the other party to view you as a walking, talking cultural stereotype, neither will they. Everyone involved in your business negotiations will want to be viewed as a multifaceted individual.

Yet negotiators often give too much weight to the other party’s culture, relying on stereotypes as a result. In one study, Japanese and American negotiators adjusted their negotiating style too far toward the other side’s culture, University of Waterloo professor Wendi L. Adair and her colleagues found in their research. As a result, these negotiators reached stereotypical ideas about one another that prompted culture clashes and misunderstandings.

Of course, many forces other than culture influence our negotiating behavior, including personality, training, and experience. Focus on getting to know the other party as a unique individual, and put your cultural knowledge off to the side. You may need to draw on this knowledge to better understand your counterpart’s behavior at key moments during your business negotiations, but it should not be a driving factor.

3. Build bridges across cultures.

Rather than focusing on overcoming intercultural barriers, look for ways to bridge the two (or more) cultures represented in your business negotiations, recommends Salacuse. That bridge-building might mean pointing out cultural similarities, such as a shared ancestry or familiar customs. Or it could involve finding commonalities that go beyond culture, such as a shared experience, interest, or goal.

4. Consider the broader context.

When coteaching a course on corporate diplomacy to executives, Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman was impressed by the ability of some diplomats in attendance to incorporate a broad array of concerns into their negotiation planning. When analyzing a negotiation in a foreign country, the diplomats raised issues related to changing politics and laws in the region, the interests of community groups, and business norms—looking far beyond obvious cultural barriers and differences that might be present in the room.

The interpersonal challenges of negotiating with someone from a different culture can lead us to overlook the broader context of our negotiations. By seeing the negotiation through a wider lens, we can incorporate critical concerns and increase our odds of reaching a successful, lasting agreement.

5. Take steps to reduce stress.

In his research on cross-cultural negotiations, Columbia University professor Michael W. Morris found that negotiators are more likely to adhere to the stereotypes of their culture when they are facing extreme demands on their attention. For example, in one experiment, Morris found that American participants who were under time pressure were more likely than Hong Kong participants to blame the individual rather than the situation for a problem—an American negotiating bias that can lead to conflict and impasse.

Emotional stress, accountability to others, and deadlines can cause us to fall back on stereotypical thinking rather than carefully analyzing the negotiation, according to Morris. So do what you can to reduce stress in your cross-cultural business negotiations. That might mean taking frequent breaks, ensuring you have enough time to negotiate, or enlisting a mutually trusted third party to help you resolve any differences or conflicts that arise during your talks. By doing so, you will reduce the pressures associated with cultural barriers and begin dealing with one another as negotiators, not stereotypes.

Have you negotiated with cultural barriers? Share your story in the comments.


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.


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