Cultural Differences

Cultural differences cause four kinds of problems in international business negotiations, at the levels of:

1) Language
2) Nonverbal behaviors
3) Values
4) Thinking and decision making process.

The order is important; the problems lower on the list are more serious because they are more subtle. For example, tow negotiators would notice immediately if one were speaking Japanese and the other German. The solution to the problem may be as simple as hiring an interpreter or talking in a common third language or it may be as difficult as learning a language. Regardless of the solution the problem is obvious. Cultural differences nonverbal behaviors, on the other hand are almost hidden always hidden below our awareness. That is to say in a face to face negotiation participants non-verbally and more subtly give off and take in a great deal of information. Some experts argue that this information is more important than verbal information. Almost all this signaling goes on below our levels of consciousness. When the nonverbal signals come from foreign partners, they are different and negotiators are most likely to misinterpret them without even being conscious of the mistake. For example when a French client consistently interrupts, Americans tend to feel uncomfortable without noticing exactly why. In this manner interpersonal friction often colors business relationships goes undetected and consequently goes uncorrected. Differences in values and thinking and decision making processes are hidden even deeper and therefore are even harder to cure. We discuss these differences here, starting with language and nonverbal behaviors.

Differences in Language and Nonverbal behaviors

Americans are clearly near the bottom of the language skills list, Australians assert that Australians are even worse. It should be added however, that American undergrads recently have begun to see the light and are flocking to language classes and study abroad programs. Unfortunately foreign language teaching resources in the United States are inadequate to satisfy the increasing demand. In contrast the Czechs are now throwing away a hard earned competitive advantage. Young Czechs will not tell Russians anymore. It is easy to understand why, but the result will be a generation of Czechs who cannot leverage their geographic advantage because they will not be able to speak to their neighbors in the east.

The language advantages of the Japanese executive in the description of the ‘aisatsu’ that opened the chapter was quite clear. However the most common complaint heard from American managers regards foreign clients and partners breaking into side conversations in their native languages. At best, this is seen as impolite and quite often American negotiators are likely to attribute something sinister to the content of the foreign talk they’re plotting or telling secrets.

This is a frequent American mistake. The usual purpose of such side conversations is to straighten out a translation problem. For instance one Korean may lean over to another and ask what did he say? Or the side conversation can be regarding a disagreement among the foreign team members. Both circumstances should be seen as positive signs by Americans – that is, getting translations straight enhances the efficiency of the interactions and concession often follows internal disagreements. Because most Americans speak only one language neither circumstance is appreciated. By the way people from other countries are advised to give Americans a brief explanation of the content of their first few side conversation to assuage the sinister attributions.

Data from simulated negotiation are also informative. In our study, the verbal behaviors of negotiations in 14 of the cultures (six negotiators in each of the 14 groups) were videotaped. The numbers in the body of Exhibit represents the percentages of statements that were classified in to each category listed.
Source: International Marketing