How to Deal with Cultural Differences in Negotiation

When figuring out how to deal with cultural differences in negotiation, it helps to consider the cultural prototypes represented at the bargaining table—but individual differences count, as well.

By on / Business Negotiations

how to deal with cultural differences in negotiations

If you have experience negotiating across cultures, then you know that misunderstandings and even conflict based on cultural differences come up from time to time. By better understanding cultural differences, you can promote smoother, less contentious negotiations, write researchers Soroush Aslani, Jimena Ramirez-Marin, Zhaleh Semnani-Azad, Jeanne M. Brett, and Catherine Tinsley in the Handbook of Research on Negotiation.

Specifically, theory and research that categorizes the world’s cultures into three prototypes—“dignity,” “face,” and “honor” cultures—can help us address cultural barriers in negotiation, the team writes. Cultural differences often spring from our different histories, and two factors—population density and type of economy—determined whether a region developed a dignity, face, or honor culture. Recognizing and respecting these cultures can help when weighing how to deal with cultural differences in negotiation.


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.


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 reliance on others.

In dignity cultures, people strive to manage conflict rationally and directly while avoiding strong emotional reactions. Because dignity cultures typically are supported by strong laws and markets, members tend to trust others and engage in mutually beneficial trades, a mindset that leads them to prefer a collaborative approach to negotiation.

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. 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, they take turns making offers and judging one another’s reactions. Negotiators from face cultures are just as effective at negotiating mutually beneficial deals through this exchange of offers as negotiators who rely on Q&A, research shows.

Honor Cultures: Close Ties and Strong Emotions

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.

Some evidence suggests that people from honor cultures may be quite reluctant to trust their counterparts for fear of being betrayed. Therefore, it may be particularly important to spend time building trust and managing conflict when negotiating with members of honor cultures as a means of overcoming cultural barriers.

Beyond Prototypes

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, including in demanding situations such as multitasking, deadlines, and crises.

For all these reasons, it would be a mistake to give great weight to prototypes in negotiation when determining how to overcome cultural barriers, lest we begin to view others as stereotypes. Instead, when weighing how to deal with cultural differences in negotiation, consider whether or not our negotiating counterparts share a “family resemblance” with their culture of origin. Sizing up your counterpart’s culture should be just one element of your due diligence, along with learning about her as an individual and analyzing the issues at stake in the negotiation.

What advice do you have on how to deal with cultural differences in negotiation?


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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2 Responses to “How to Deal with Cultural Differences in Negotiation”

  • ALEX O.

    Very insightful. As a seasoned mediator, I am always aware of cultural nuances to be effective. I have not heard of these prototypes, but I am aware of high-context/low-context cultures (Deresky (2017).

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  • Pon U.

    Very nice way of bringing the cultural dimensions that can affect negotiations and very useful. I woudl add that in Face situations, like Japan, expect to meet second tier teams first who test your resolve and trustworthiness and a deal is made in the making as well as in the delivery. Participating in drinking sessions and eating local food is all part of the process, especially Southern Chinese.
    Having worked in the ME and parts of Africa, there is a different pace here and the idea of Honour is very important and question this is a bad move, but the time frames are different to Western ones so remember this and again sharing in hospitality is important as part of the culture. Africa is a real mixed bag with a mixture of all three and knowing the history of the country and its development is essential, for example in Angola one needs to acknowledge their independence and build trust, and in Southern Africa trust is critical to make any progress. Latam is complicated with a lack of trust historically laying a very poor foundation so it takes a lot of time to get this up and going, I found joint problem solving and finding workable solutions and being closely involved helped over come this aspect.

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