Negotiating with Another Culture

Dealing with another culture can be tricky and difficult if you do not take the time to learn some basic social customs. Do not make the mistake of thinking that because those you deal with speak English that they will understand what you are trying to communicate. George Bernard Shaw's wise observation that "England and America are two countries separated by the same language" suggests that, even in English-speaking countries, we are not always on the same page. Take the time to learn the customs of any country you will be doing business in; it will be well worth your effort. Most business people will take into account the fact that you cannot possibly be aware of all their customs; however, it is simply polite to make an effort to be familiar with the most relevant. In this article, we will discuss some of the most important aspects to be aware of when negotiating with other cultures.
Meeting in the Middle
No matter what country you are doing business in, it would be unreasonable for its citizens to expect you to be familiar with all of their customs and traditions. Likewise, it would be absurd for you to expect the other party to be wholly schooled in American ways of doing things. However, it is not only polite but entirely desirable to learn as much as you can about the other party's traditions before meeting for negotiations. In this regard, this effort constitutes research and will serve you well in the future.

Just as we appreciate when others honor our own method of protocol when visiting our country, home, or office, the other party will acknowledge the effort you made; it will make a good first and lasting impression. Get to the library or local bookstore and read books pertaining to the subject of culture and customs for the country you will be negotiating in. Spend time practicing simple words and phrases that will show that you have gone to the trouble of learning a bit of their language. Likewise, if the other party has gone to the trouble of learning American customs and/or words, then you should acknowledge that effort and thank the other party for it. Many believe that if other parties will be coming to America, there is no need to observe their etiquette; this is a huge mistake in reasoning. Consider how you would feel if you were entering an unfamiliar country and those you were to meet made no effort to make you feel comfortable. You would feel insulted, and rightly so. Thus, it is just as important to meet other parties halfway when they come to you as it is when you go to them.
Following Customs and Protocol
It may be difficult to remember all of the various customs of other countries, particularly if you do business with multiple cultures on a regular basis. In this section, we have complied a general overview of European customs as well as some of the most common protocols of three Asian countries you are most likely to do business in, as those cultures are most different from our own.
It is imperative that you read a good guide on business protocol before entering negotiations with any country other than your own. Do not rely on brief information to carry you through and make a lasting impression. If you find yourself in a situation where you cannot remember what the custom is, it is best to not do anything rather than insult or offend the other party. For instance, if you cannot remember whether to bow, shake hands, or nod when greeting the other party, a simple smile and greeting in their language or yours will do the trick. It may not impress anyone, but it will at least cause no harm.
European countries are similar in many ways to the U.S. and to one another, but they also differ from country to country. It would be wise for you to learn a little about each country separately if you plan on doing business with multiple European countries. The subtle differences between protocol in France and Italy may affect the outcome of negotiations. Because of the multitude of countries and protocols in Europe, we are not able to introduce them all individually in the scope of this article; however, we have listed many excellent resources that will provide you with further information on the subject.
Here are some common, easy-to-remember etiquette protocols of Japan, China, India, and a general overview of the continent of Europe:


  • Bow, making direct eye contact, when you greet someone; do not shake hands.
  • Business attire is formal to semiformal, with a suit and tie preferred.
  • Gifts given between business associates are common and appreciated. Read more about this involved protocol before giving gifts.
  • Business cards are exchanged copiously and ritualistically. Read more about this before entering negotiations with the Japanese.
  • When sitting, be sure to wait for your seat to be shown to you.
  • Keep your eye on the head honcho during meetings and meals. Follow this protocol: Wait for the top official to be seated before you sit, wait to drink until that person drinks, etc.
  • If given a gift that is wrapped, thank the giver and wait until you leave to open it.
  • If given an unwrapped gift, thank the giver with enthusiasm and be gracious, whether you like the gift or not. Do not show displeasure or disappointment.
  • If you are visiting Japan, the native businesspeople most likely will insist on paying for any business meals; however, it is polite to offer to pay.
  • Most Japanese enjoy drinking alcohol during business meals. If you drink, go ahead and enjoy; if you do not, do not show annoyance if they insist that you do. Read more about this if you do not drink.


  • When greeting, shake hands with a firm, steady clasp and nod slightly.
  • Do not make excessive physical contact other than a handshake.
  • Maintain a formal attitude.
  • Giving and receiving gifts are common and accepted practices.
  • Do not be too cheap when giving a gift, and always have a good reason for giving one to a business associate.
  • Be careful of showing emotion.
  • Research the culture and business carefully. Chinese negotiators will have researched you well and expect equal effort on your part.
  • Study and understand the concept of "face," .


  • In greeting, a handshake is appropriate; however, namaste is appreciated. Namaste is the formal greeting in India; hold your palms together at chest level and bow slightly, saying the word, "Namaste." If you are unsure, read more or stick with a handshake.
  • Always use formal titles, such as Dr., Mr., Mrs., Sir, or Madam.
  • English is the language of international commerce. Hindi is the only official language.
  • Pay special attention to hierarchy, rank, and status. This is a very dominant and important aspect of Indian culture.
  • Do not expect to do business until you have built a level of trust over time with the other party.
  • Business dress is conservative, not formal.
  • Negotiations in India are taken very slowly; do not show frustration at this process.
  • It is expected and polite to invite the other party for dinner after successful negotiations have ended.


  • A firm handshake is the expected greeting in Europe.
  • Dress is formal rather than casual.
  • Do not address your European business associates by first names unless invited to do so.
  • Be sure to make proper introductions; meetings will not begin unless all attendees have been properly introduced.
  • Introduce the most important person first if introducing a group.
  • Always stand when making introductions.
  • Avoid using American slang during business conversations.
  • Admitting fault promptly is greatly appreciated and seen as a sign of strength and trustworthiness in Europe.
  • Complimenting your European colleagues is appreciated, not frowned upon.
  • Do not discuss your personal life unless you have built a long-term association.
  • Meetings are more slowly paced in Europe; do not show annoyance at this custom.
  • Meetings rarely, if ever, start before 10:00 A.M. or go past 3:00 P.M.
  • Business lunches and dinners also are slow, leisurely affairs. Go with the flow of the more relaxed environment.
Using a Translator or Interpreter
This might be the single most important thing that you do when negotiating a particularly tricky or large deal with another country. If you have any doubt about your ability to communicate effectively with the other party, then find a good interpreter to bring along to negotiations with you. Not only can a translator effectively communicate what you are trying to say clearly, but she or he will be completely familiar with the customs and nuances of those you are dealing with. The interpreter also can guide you in proper etiquette and protocol so you can avoid offending anyone or making embarrassing or deal-breaking mistakes.
You have several options when it comes to finding a good interpreter. You can contact a company that provides such services to executives, you can get a reference from someone you know, or you can ask those you will be doing business with to recommend someone. While this may seem like a foolish move, giving the other side an unnecessary advantage, in many cultures this would be seen as a sign of trust and honor on your part; and that trust would never be violated. In fact, it might just win you serious points.

No matter where you find your interpreter, be sure to take the following steps to ensure you get the most out of this business relationship:
    1. Interview the prospective interpreter and ask for credentials.
    2. Make sure the person is exceptionally fluent in both languages, or hire two interpreters for each language.
    3. Make sure that the interpreter is comfortable with the particular dialect of the area you will be doing business in.
    4. Be sure the person is familiar with the customs of the area you will be doing business in. Areas of India vary greatly in their protocol and customs.
    5. Brief your interpreter well before negotiations begin so that he or she is fully aware of what is going on.
    6. Treat your interpreter well, and that person will aid you greatly by pointing out nuances you would otherwise be completely unaware of.
    7. Be patient and allow the interpreter time to absorb and convey messages.
International business can be rewarding, profitable, and mutually beneficial for all parties; however, negotiating with a culture that is vastly different from your own can lead to minor or serious problems that could ultimately cost you the deal. It is always in your best interest to learn more about the country you will be doing business in. Read books, guides, and tips on the subject to expand your knowledge. If you will be negotiating a very large or important deal, it is well worth the time, finance, and effort to hire a translator to aid you in both spoken and unspoken communication with the other party.
Making the Most of a Distant Situation

Many people feel that without the benefit of sitting across from someone and dealing face-to-face, it becomes very difficult to communicate effectively. It is preferred by the majority of businesspeople to have face-to-face negotiations for large deals whenever possible. However, there are times when you will have no choice but to deal over the phone, via e-mail, or with conference calls. There are methods of making this task easier and clearer and techniques for getting what you need and want when negotiating long distance. It certainly takes a little more effort on your part to make your meaning and intent clear, but once you learn the basics of this type of negotiating, you will find that it saves considerable time and expense for smaller negotiations and follow-up negotiations that do not require a room full of people or an actual physical meeting.
Telephone Negotiating
Many businesspeople prefer telephone negotiating over other long-distance methods, as it allows effective use of the voice to convey emotion and also allows for picking up on verbal cues from the opposition. This type of negotiating is certainly an art, and some are better at it than others. Whenever possible, you should try to arrange for a video call so that you and the other party can see as well as hear each other. With the availability of video calls expanding every day and the cost dropping to such an extent, this is not nearly as difficult to accomplish as it once was.
If video is not possible and all you have to contend with is voice communications, then make the most of that situation. If you listen to any radio show or watch any great actor, it becomes clear that the voice is most assuredly an instrument. If you have never taken a or seminar on public speaking and you plan on doing a lot of telephone negotiating, then this might be a worthwhile investment for your career toolbox. Your voice can be used to convey firmness, uncertainty, disbelief, confusion, sincerity, happiness, and disappointment, in addition to many shades of emotion in between. A few important points to keep in mind when telephone negotiating are the following:

1. Prepare for phone negotiations just as you would for in-person negotiations.

2. Be sure you have a quiet place, free from interruptions, in which to carry on a negotiating discussion.

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3. Do not feel that you must make a decision before the phone call has ended or that you must hurry through the call. Take your time to consider all points, just as you would in face-to-face negotiations.

4. If listening well is a prime tool in negotiations, it is the most important tool in telephone negotiations; listen well.

5. Take a break if needed; phone negotiations can take time just as do other forms of discussion. Tell the other party that you need a break and will call back at a mutually determined time.

Conference Calls
Conference call negotiating can become rather sticky and difficult if calls are not planned carefully and if all parties are not informed of proper conference call etiquette. This is the least desirable of long-distance negotiating, as it is a trifle confusing when more than three people are involved. Try to avoid this option if there will be more than four people in negotiations. As with telephone negotiating, try to arrange for a video conference whenever possible. If you do decide to have a conference call negotiation and cannot have live video, then keep the following points in mind:

1. Everyone should be briefed on etiquette; ie., being apprised of what time and number to call, announcing who you are before you begin speaking, allowing one person to finish talking before responding, etc.

2. Prepare as well, if not better than, you would for any other form of negotiation.

3. Be sure that all parties have allotted sufficient time for the conference call.

4. Be sure all parties have quiet and will not be interrupted during the call.

5. Select one person to be the mediator for each side and be sure that all callers know who their mediator is.

6. Make sure that the call is recorded so there is a record of the negotiations.

7. Agree on a start time and an end time and stick with this decision.

Negotiating via E-mail
Communication via e-mail is so commonplace in today's business environment that it is not surprising that multimillion-dollar deals are now being negotiated via this medium. Most negotiators will not use e-mail exclusively to negotiate, but some do so successfully. The key to using e-mail advantageously is to know when to pick up the phone or ask for a meeting and when e-mail correspondence is going smoothly. Keep in mind that not all businesspeople will be open to this type of distance negotiating, and you need to respect their desire for face-to-face or telephone discussions when they request it. However, if they embrace this form of communication, it can considerably speed the process and allow for multiple negotiations to be carried on simultaneously. Several important points to remember when using e-mail to negotiate are:
  1. Always check your grammar and punctuation carefully.
  1. Do not delete e-mails until the deal is complete. Create a folder for them within your e-mail program and save them to refer back to if need be.
  1. Do reply in a timely manner when negotiations have begun and are in process, even if it is just to say that you need time to get back to the other party.
  1. Use the "no-face" aspect of e-mail correspondence to ask probing questions as they relate to business.
  1. Change your subject line to reflect the body of the current e-mail you are sending. Do not let the first subject line stand throughout the entire string of e-mails; changing the line allows the other party to know that the subject has shifted. It also makes it easier to research or clarify a particular point you may have forgotten about later on.
  1. Let the other party know if you will be out of the office for an extended period of time so that they do not think you are ignoring a recently sent e-mail.
  1. Think carefully about your tone and remember that e-mail verbiage can sometimes come off sounding abrupt or arrogant. Because you cannot literally smile to lighten your tone, you may want to buffer your words with a J if this seems appropriate.
Technology has allowed for the growth of using other means of negotiating with distant parties. Using telephone, e-mail, conference calls, and video calls can speed negotiations and effectively bridge the physical distance between negotiators. Be sure to follow proper etiquette when using this form of communication and remember that a great deal of nuance can be lost without the advantage of body language and nonverbal signals. Try to compensate for this by using your voice effectively, by planning well, and by knowing when it may be time to call a face-to-face meeting. As you become more adept at this form of negotiating, you will find it is a valuable and reliable tool that can make life easier for all involved.