Culture and Communication

By — on / Daily, International Negotiation

Adapted from “Cultural Notes,” first published in the Negotiation newsletter.

As members of organizations and families, we all know from experience that even people with identical backgrounds can have vastly differing negotiating styles and values. Nonetheless, we continue to be intrigued by the idea that distinct patterns emerge between negotiators from different cultures.

Researchers do confirm a relationship between national culture and negotiation style and success. An ongoing project sponsored by Northwestern University’s Dispute Resolution Research Center is exploring the link between process and outcomes—specifically, how cultural tendencies lead to certain process choices, which, in turn, can lead to better or worse negotiation results.

One study undertaken by the center has found that negotiators from the United States typically communicate their priorities more directly than do their Japanese counterparts, an advantage at the bargaining table. Because Japanese negotiators are generally good at making inferences, however, they match the performance of Americans in their ability to use information to generate joint gains.

By contrast, negotiators from Hong Kong and Russia do not create as much value as do American and Japanese negotiators, though for quite different reasons. Hong Kong negotiators often fail to share enough information to identify beneficial tradeoffs, while Russian negotiators tend to rely too much on power tactics.

Although the findings confirm some familiar national stereotypes, it would be a grave mistake to assume that group tendencies reliably predict any one individual’s behavior. The important contribution of this research is that cultural differences in negotiation don’t hinge precisely on where a negotiator happens to have been born. Rather, they depend on what that negotiator actually does at the bargaining table. The ability to engage in constructive communication—by revealing and interpreting information—matters much more than a negotiator’s passport.

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