The Challenges of Negotiating Across Cultures

Thomas Brownlees

Thomas Brownlees

CEO and Founder,
440 Industries


In the context of international business, it’s easy to focus on the challenge of delivering our products and services abroad, while disregarding the issues which relate to the development of successful business relationships.

This problem can make itself heard during intercultural business negotiations, where cultural competency has the power to make or break a deal.
Intercultural negotiations present multiple levels of complexity which impair communication; including: 

  • The country’s culture 
  • The company’s culture 
  • Foreign Laws and Bureaucracy 
  • Different Currency, with its own volatility 
  • Political and Commercial Risks.

However, as presented by Salacuse (2003) in his book The Global Negotiator, the most impacting cultural distance can found between the negotiators. Personal relationships are the context in which each of our individual’s cultures can have a strong repercussion on both:

  • the process of agreeing upon a deal
  • the agreement’s substance.

Culture can be something challenging to pinpoint, interestingly enough; however,  there seems to be a consensus in academia, when it comes to comparing it to an “onion”.

Just like an onion, culture has multiple layers, the outer, and the most apparent shell is represented by behaviours (as one behaves on one particular occasion). The second layer is called attitudes, (for instance, the aptitude to punctuality), then we have norms, and finally values. Despite being rooted deep into the ‘heart’ of the onion, we can see how values have a strong impact on business decision-making. We’ll make examples to clarify how this happens, almost daily in any business.

In this post we are going to discuss the following points:

1. How cultural values affect decision-making
2. A case study example
3. How does culture affect negotiations
4. So what’s the way out of a cultural issue?
5. Conclusions


1. How Cultural Values Affect Decision-making.

Let’s consider a simple example showing how personal values can affect for instance a firm’s hiring policy, by analysing how each of us would answer to the following question: 

“As a manager hiring employees, which of these two factors is more important to you?”

1) The person can fit well into the team (favouring communitarian values) 
2) The person has the necessary skills to perform the job optimally (individuality values)

Ideally, at the cost of being a little stereotypical,  a US executive would probably favour the second element, whereby a Chinese the first. This phenomenon is not to be simply labelled as an East vs. West dispute, in the EU itself, some countries are also more community-oriented (like Italy), whereby other countries, may favour a more individualistic approach.

Is that all? Of course not. There may be other additional layers, such as culture related to particular professions, and this is even without getting into the largest cultural categories of all: women and men.

2. Time for a Case Scenario Example.

With no intent to define culture in business – as this would drive us towards a very slippery slope – we should consider the use of culture in daily communication.  Think about the ‘What Do You Mean Gesture’ which is commonly used in Italy. On a wider perspective, this gesture has a variety of meanings which differ from country to country, for instance, Egyptians and Greeks associate to the “closed fingers” a very different meanings than the one intended by Italians. The relativity of culture is not a limitation of our communication potential, on the contrary is should be used as a tool for us to move past communication barriers.

A famous example of a successful adaptation to foreign culture communication is provided by former CityGroup’s CEO, Charles Prince. Mr Price, after being involved in a scandal whereby CityGroup’s operations in Japan were found to violate Japanese banking norms, decided to hold a press conference to express his position on the matter. During the meeting, he apologised to the Japanese audience using their own, culturally-rooted apology – by bowing

This form of apology was intended to overcome cultural barriers and show transparency of intent. This behaviour was a successful example of intercultural communication in business. Hypothetically this effort could have backfired, but in reality, it showed willingness not only to pursue a legal ‘submission’ in terms banking policies, but also a physical submission to the ‘body language’ and traditions of a foreign country. 

This can be compared with a less successful example,  the D&G ‘Pizza with Chopsticks’ scandal. A controversial add created massive upheaval in China, after a promotional video of a Chinese girl attempting to eat pizza with chopsticks was posted on social media. The video was intended to be a form of promotion for an upcoming fashion show.

This ad, however, portrayed China not as a booming economy, quickly developing a taste for sophistication and luxury, but a country with a rural economy and an underdeveloped society.

Dolce and Gabbana, in response, published a video where they apologised wholeheartedly for the cultural misunderstanding, but Chinese media still kept the spotlight on this issue, as if it had not been resolved.
Undoubtedly the apology helped to distance the organisation from this political incident, but on the other hand, many analysts saw this move as something pursued by economic interests to safeguard the brand’s image in the Chinese market, without delving deeper into the heart of the issue.

3. How does culture affect negotiations

So when addressing cultural negotiations, we can see that a multilayered environment can be represented through a series of competing tensions, such as. 

  • Individualism Vs.Communitarianism 
  • Universalism Vs. Particularism 
  • Achievement (Merit) Vs. Status (Seniority) 
  • Task-Oriented Vs. Relationship Oriented 
  • Equality Vs. Hierarchy 

This echoes the framework developed by Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, which can assist us in identifying the main points of conflict among cultures: 

Power Distance, this dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept an unequal distribution of power.

Individualism Vs Collectivism, this dimension focuses on the question about whether people prefer a close-knit network or prefer to be left alone to fend for themselves. 

Uncertainty Avoidance, this dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.

Masculinity Vs Femininity, masculine values represent a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material reward for success. Femininity instead stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life.

Long term- short term orientation, this can be interpreted in the context of society’s search for virtue. Societies with short term orientation usually focus on establishing an absolute truth.

Indulgence Vs Restraint. As presented by Wikipedia: ‘This dimension is essentially a measure of happiness; whether or not simple joys are fulfilled. Indulgence is defined as “a society that allows relatively free gratification of basic and natural human desires related to enjoying life and having fun.”
Its counterpart is defined as “a society that controls gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms.” Indulgent societies believe themselves to be in control of their own life and emotions; restrained societies believe other factors dictate their life and feelings.’

4. So, what's the Way out of cultural issue?

So how do these cultural dimensions affect business relations? Here’s a breakdown of the most common conflicts that can be found in negotiations.

  • Negotiating Goal – Contract or Relationship? 
  • Negotiating Attitude – Win\Win or Win\Lose? 
  • Personal Style – Formal or Informal Communication Style – Direct or Indirect? 
  • Time Sensitivity – High or Low? 
  • Emotionalism – High or Low? 
  • Agreement Form – Specific or General? 
  • Agreement Building – Bottom Up or Top Down? 
  • Team Organisation – Team Leader or Consensus? 
  • Risk Taking – Risk Averse or Risk Prone? 

So what strategies can you use to approach cultural conflicts? (Salacuse, 2003 ‘The Global Negotiator’) 

  • Assertion, the other party adapts to you 
  • Avoidance, each person does their own thing 
  • Adaptation, incorporate some elements to harmonise 
  • Adoption, using the other side cultural practice 
  • Adventure, inventing a third type, a new way to do things. 

5. Conclusions

Are we destined to forever struggle with our cultural differences?

Not at all, there are many ways in which this problem can be addressed and resolved.
Here are a few examples of things you can do today to help you communicate across cultural boundaries. 

  • Learn the Culture. Solving cultural conflict always starts with putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes.
  • Be Aware of Your Own Culture and How Other People May Perceive It. We need to be aware of how we are perceived and prepare for some stereotypes and misconceptions that might affect us. 
  • Use Culture to Build a Bridge. Different cultures always have something in common, and it’s by thriving on the commonalities that we can show how differences – by comparison – comprise only a small part of who we are.

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Further Readings

If you’d like to read more about this, here you can find a few sources I would recommend.

Thomas Brownlees

Thomas Brownlees

I am an Anglo-Italian business lecturer and consultant based in Florence, Italy. In 2017 I started 440 Industries, an education and training company focused on fashion, music, and technology. Our mission is to help students, entrepreneurs and managers in overcoming the challenges of starting, developing and scaling their business in the creative industries. When there's a will, there's a way!




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