For Conflict Resolution in Asia, A Simple Handshake Could Go Far

Overcome Cultural Barriers and Resolve Disputes in International Negotiations with Gestures of Reciprocity

By — on / Conflict Resolution

Recent tensions between Japan and China could soon be lessened by a simple but significant gesture: a handshake between the two nations’ leaders. As Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prepares to travel to Beijing for a regional economic summit this month, Japanese officials are expressing hope that he will be able to share a handshake – and perhaps even a brief meeting – with Chinese President Xi Jinping, writes Martin Fackler in the New York Times.

Since Abe, a proud nationalist took office in December 2012, Xi has refused to meet with him. Some Chinese officials have suggested that Xi would not engage in formal talks unless Abe promised to stop visiting a shrine to Japan’s war dead that offends many Chinese haunted by Japanese World War II atrocities, according to Fackler.

The two nations are also locked in a standoff over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Outraged when Abe’s predecessor purchased the islands for Japan, China sent paramilitary ships to waters near the uninhabited islands. Japan responded by sending its own ships and planes to chase away the Chinese boats and aircraft. China has been infuriated by Japan’s refusal to admit that the islands are in dispute.

The animosity has dampened investment and trade between the two countries, which has motivated them to quietly carry out a series of diplomatic negotiations aimed at conflict resolution. In mid-October, the Japanese news media reported that a top Japanese diplomat had visited Beijing to negotiate a handshake between Xi and Abe. An actual handshake between Abe and China’s number 2 leader, Premier Li Keqiang, was taken as another encouraging sign.

In Japan, handshaking is a fairly recent phenomenon adopted from the West; when it does occur, it often accompanies a more traditional bow. But as evidenced by the intrigue surrounding the specifics of Abe and Xi’s potential meeting, handshakes have taken on significant weight in business negotiations across the globe.

The findings serve as a reminder of the power of nonverbal gestures and social niceties to shape negotiations. As described in the April issue of Negotiation Briefings, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino found in her research that simply being randomly assigned to shake hands before negotiating increased study participants’ cooperative behavior, decreased their antagonistic behavior, and improved their negotiated outcomes. Pairs of negotiators who were instructed to shake hands divided the pie of resources more evenly and were more truthful than pairs who were not told to shake hands.

In Asia, it remains to be seen whether a handshake of greeting could help bring about the ultimate goal of any negotiation – shaking at the end of talks on a mutually satisfactory deal.

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Originally published November 2014.

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