Overcoming Cross-Cultural Barriers to a Negotiated Agreement: Negotiation Ethics and International Negotiations

A cross-cultural negotiation example from negotiation research and what to know when bargaining with foreign counterparts

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Cross-cultural negotiation examples provide insights into how negotiation techniques change depending on the context in which negotiators find themselves. As Professor Cheryl Rivers of Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, points out in a recent negotiation research literature review, seasoned negotiators often hear stories about the unethical behaviors of people of other nationalities. Perhaps the toughest problems arise surrounding what Rivers calls “ethically ambiguous” negotiation tactics. Ambiguity can lead us to reach sinister conclusions about the motives of our counterparts, particularly when we lack a solid understanding of an opponent’s culture.

Rivers summarizes a variety of cultural differences in negotiation.


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Cross-Cultural Negotiation Examples

For example, Asians are more likely to view cultivating a relationship with a negotiating counterpart through expensive gifts, entertainment, or personal favors as more ethically appropriate than would Americans or Canadians. Similarly, she notes that although Mexicans have higher standards than Americans about ethics in negotiation however necessity is more likely to lead Mexicans to violate these standards.

Like any differences between groups, these cultural differences are small, on average. Nonetheless, we tend to overuse stereotypes that arise from these small differences, and these stereotypes block us from noting important individuating information. Thus, we too often act as if the person on the other side of the table represents the cultural stereotype we’re expecting. From her statements and behaviors, we seek confirmatory information to back up these stereotypes (see also, Cognitive Biases in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution – Common Negotiation Mistakes).

Perhaps most problematic, when a counterpart uses ethically ambiguous negotiation tactics, we adopt sinister explanations for her motives.

When it comes to negotiating behavior, more variance often exists within cultures than between them. Negotiators should seek out information about individual and cultural differences. However, negotiators are more likely to assume that people from other cultures are behaving unethically than they are to realize that standards of ethical behavior vary. Therefore, don’t jump to harsh conclusions about the other side’s motives when more benevolent explanations for their behavior are possible.

Have you overcome cross-cultural barriers in negotiation? Share your experience in the comments.

Related International Negotiation Article:  Cross-Cultural Negotiation Case Studies: Negotiation Tips for International Negotiators Bargaining in Different Languages


Click here to download your copy of International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives from
 the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


Originally published on July 3, 2012.

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