Negotiation in Different Cultures

In our increasingly globalized world, many businesses that used to be 100% local are outsourcing their needs to foreign firms and agencies. You probably have at least one or two suppliers, distributors, or customers overseas for whom English is not a first language. Then again, you could be negotiating with someone in your own city that doesn’t speak English as a first language.

 Getting Past Language Barriers

If clear communication is a challenge for you and one of your business contacts, here are a few words of advice to help you get on track with your language…

  • Avoid euphemisms and idioms. “The cat’s out of the bag” can be a very confusing way of letting a business contact know that one of your secrets has been made public knowledge. Avoid phrases like these when communicating with someone of a different cultural or ethnic background.
  • In Basic English, there are 850 words, only 18 of which are verbs. Don’t use big or impressive words – especially if they’re not particularly relevant to the line of work you and your business contact are in.
  • Keep your written and oral communication brief and to the point – even at the risk of overstating/oversimplifying.


The Negotiation Phase

Once you’re comfortable with communicating clearly, you can turn your attention to negotiating with the contact of a different background. In negotiating, body language goes a long way. Different cultures use body language in different ways. Understanding how your culture and how another person’s culture uses body language can eliminate the risk of offense and achieve results.


Here are a few examples of how body language varies from culture to culture:

  • In Asia, it’s common to avoid eye contact, as looking down is a sign of respect.
  • In Middle Eastern cultures, people of the same gender are likely to stand quite close to one another.
  • Crossing your legs while negotiating with someone of Islamic culture can be perceived as offensive.
  • Handshaking and touching is common in North America, France, and Italy, but these practices are much less common in Asia and northern Europe.

 We can’t highlight all of the body language differences between cultures in this post. Rather, the point is to give you some insight into a few types of body language you might not be aware of. Before negotiating with someone of a different culture or ethnic background, you should always do some preliminary research on body language.

As for the negotiation part, don’t be afraid of making your needs and desires known. However, express yourself with sensitivity to the other person’s cultural background. A little bit of willingness to learn about someone else can take you a long way!

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