Overcoming Cultural Barriers in Negotiations and the Importance of Communication in International Business Deals

Negotiating skills and techniques for handling counterparts from different cultural backgrounds during negotiations.

By — on / International Negotiation


Communication in negotiation is the means by which negotiators can achieve objectives, build relationships, and resolve disputes. Most negotiators know that it is the most important tool you can have for successful negotiations.

Communication becomes even more important when negotiations include counterparts that are from different cultures. The following question was posed to our Negotiation Briefings newsletter editorial board and Program on Negotiation faculty member Jeswald Salacuse offers his insights.

Question: Before taking my new job, I had 10 years of successful experience negotiating with suppliers all over the United States. The company I just joined sources materials and components from almost everywhere but the United States. What advice can you give me on negotiating with foreign suppliers?

Answer: When negotiating with foreign suppliers, you’ll confront a variety of obstacles, such as unfamiliar laws, ideologies, and governments, that are usually absent from negotiations with U.S. suppliers. One particular obstacle that almost always complicates international negotiations is the cultural differences between the two sides. 

Culture consists of the socially transmitted behavior patterns, attitudes, norms, and values of a given community, whether a nation, an ethnic group, or even an organization.

Understanding a foreign counterpart’s culture is a lot like peeling an onion, as you interpret behavior to reveal attitudes, which reflect norms, which are founded on values.

Differences in culture complicate relationships in many ways.

The Importance of Communication in International Business: Three Aspects of International Negotiations

First, they can create communication problems. For example, if in response to one of your proposals your Japanese supplier says, “That’s difficult,” you might erroneously assume that the door is still open for further discussion. In fact, your supplier, coming from a culture that avoids confrontation, may have been giving a flat no.

Second, cultural barriers also make it difficult to understand each other’s behavior.

While many Americans may view the hiring of relatives as dubious nepotism, Lebanese counterparts may consider the practice to be necessary to securing trustworthy, loyal, and long-term employees.

Third, cultural considerations influence the form and substance of the deal. For example, when McDonald’s first franchised its operations in Thailand, it insisted on strict adherence to its traditional American menu.

Later, under pressure from its Thai franchisee, it permitted the sale of noodles, a dish traditionally served on auspicious occasions. Sales increased as a result of the menu changes.

Since differences in culture will invariably require adaptation of products, management systems, and personnel practices abroad, you need to be open-minded and consider your suppliers’ suggestions for change.

Finally, culture can influence the way people behave and interact at the bargaining table.

I found in one survey that in some countries, such as Spain, business negotiators’ primary goal may be to achieve a signed contract, whereas negotiators in other cultures, including India, may be more focused on establishing an effective long-term relationship with their counterparts.

The Importance of Communication in International Business: Four Strategies for Handling Cultural Differences at the Negotiation Table

Here are a few simple rules for coping with cultural differences in international negotiations and transactions:

Negotiation Strategy #1. Don’t forget to do your homework about your supplier’s culture.

Through reading and conversations with those who know the country concerned, you can certainly learn a lot. Don’t overlook your suppliers as sources of information about their culture. They will usually welcome your interest, and help the research process.

Negotiation Strategy #2. Show respect for cultural differences.

Inexperienced negotiators tend to belittle unfamiliar cultural practices. It is far better to seek to understand the value system at work and to construct a problem-solving conversation about any difficulties that unfamiliar customs pose. Respect for cultural differences will get you a lot farther than ignorance, so it’s important to do your research when entering into negotiations with unfamiliar counterparts.

Negotiation Strategy #3. Be aware of how others may perceive your culture.

You are as influenced by your culture as your counterpart is by his. Try to see how your behavior, attitudes, norms, and values appear to your foreign supplier. When you enter into negotiations, it helps knowing how they see you from a cultural standpoint. You can adjust your approach during negotiations to get a better outcome if any of these perspectives are negative.

Negotiation Strategy #4. Find ways to bridge the culture gap.

It is possible that cultural differences can create a divide between you and your suppliers. Constantly search for ways to bridge that culture gap. The first step in bridge building requires you and your suppliers to find something in common, such as a shared experience, interest, or goal.

Have you taken part in international negotiations? How have you bridged the culture gap? Please share your story with us in the comments.

Adapted from “Ask the Negotiation Coach: Bridging the Cultural Divide,” first published in the July 2011 issue of Negotiation.

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3 Responses to “Overcoming Cultural Barriers in Negotiations and the Importance of Communication in International Business Deals”

  • With due respect to Professor Salacuse, many decades of hard experience tell me that much of the advice is distant from the reality of people. You negotiate with people, not cultures. An understanding of broad cultural differences must be seen as a way into an understanding of individuals, many of whom, in the international arena, will have experience that causes them to diverge from cultural norms, which are nothing more than academic indicators of central tendency. Another factor to anticipate is that your respect for other cultures might not be reciprocated by your counterparts. Be prepared for reality.

  • Alistair W.

    I have researched and written about the subject of cultural difference in the context of negotiation and would make 3 observations
    1. “Culture” is not just about geography and ethnicity. IBM or Procter and Gamble have strong corporate cultures that impact upon negotiations.
    2. The fundamental principles of negotiation apply across cultures.
    3. the extent to which a negotiator must factor cultural difference into their thinking will depend on their position of power and the nature of the specific negotiation

    • Keith L.

      Thank you for your comment Alistair. Indeed, culture can also be institutional and the impact this has on a negotiator is probably dynamically different but substantively similar to the challenges negotiators face bargaining across cultures.


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