Negotiation Research You Can Use: When “Honor Talk” Pays in Negotiation

When “honor talk” pays in negotiation

By — on / Negotiation Skills

You likely have noticed that this newsletter and other negotiation advice from the Western world tends to promote rationality, logic, and fact finding over emotional reactions or a focus on abstract concepts such as honor. This rational approach dovetails well with the values and assumptions of American and other Western cultures. But how well does it serve negotiators from cultures where different values are more prominent?

In a new study, professor Michele J. Gelfand of the University of Maryland and her colleagues examined the role of honor in negotiations. Honor—a value that is deeply embedded in many Middle Eastern, African, and Latin American cultures but not in most Western cultures—has been defined as a commodity that signals a person’s self-worth in her society and reflects that she deserves others’ respect. In some cultures, maintaining one’s sense of honor is more important than any economic value that could be gained in a negotiation—a treasure to be carefully guarded. In such a context, the common advice to strive for rationality could be viewed as coldhearted.

To examine how honor concerns play out in negotiation, the research team set up same-culture pairs of participants in the United States and in Egypt. The pairs were given an hour to engage in a negotiation simulation between a real estate developer that planned to open a mall and a large retailer that was interested in opening an anchor store in the mall. The situation gave negotiators opportunities to reach creative solutions by meeting each other’s underlying interests.

After the fact, coders examined the language used by the negotiators. U.S. negotiators used more so-called “rational talk”—words such as analyze, idea, think, and solution—than the Egyptian negotiators, who used more “honor talk”—words such as honest, responsible, help, trust, and agree. The results showed that the same rational language that predicts win-win outcomes in the United States actually hinders agreements in Egypt. By contrast, Egyptians were more effective at reaching creative deals when they used more honor language. Specifically, Egyptian negotiators who used language signifying that they were committed to moral values and/or protective of their honor reached more creative agreements than those who didn’t.

Moving beyond standard Western prescriptions for successful negotiation, the study shows that strategies based on rationality may backfire in honor cultures. To succeed in negotiation, the researchers advise us to try to match our language to the concerns of the culture in which we find ourselves.

Resource: “Culture and Getting to Yes: The Linguistic Signature of Creative Agreements in the United States and Egypt,” by Michele J. Gelfand, Laura Severance, Tiane Lee, C. Bayan Bruss, Janetta Lun, Hamid Latif, Asmaa Ahmed Al-Moghazy, and Sally Moustafa. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2015.