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  • E. Meyer

Getting to Si, Ja, Oui, Hai, and Da


What gets you to “yes” in one culture gets you to “no” in another.

The theories about negotiation may work perfectly when you’re doing a deal with a company in your own country - but they may not work as well when you find yourself working with very different norms of communication in different global business cultures.

There are 5 rules of thumb for negotiating with someone whose cultural style of communication differs from yours:

1. Adapt the Way You Express Disagreement

In some cultures it’s appropriate to say “I totally disagree” whilst in other cultures the same behaviour would provoke anger and possibly an irreconcilable breakdown of the relationship. The key is to listen for verbal cues, what linguistics experts call “upgraders” and “downgraders.” Upgraders are words that strengthen your disagreement, such as “totally,” “completely,” “absolutely.” Downgraders—such as “partially,” “a little bit,” “maybe”—soften the disagreement. Russians, French, Germans, Israelis, and Dutch use a lot of upgraders with disagreement. Mexicans, Thai, Japanese, Peruvians, and Ghanaians use a lot of downgraders.

2. Know When to Bottle It Up or Let It All Pour Out

In some cultures it’s appropriate to express emotion openly, in other cultures it would feel intrusive or surprising but may even demonstrate a lack of professionalism. What makes international negotiations interesting (and complicated) is that people from some very emotionally expressive cultures—such as Brazil, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia—may also avoid open disagreement. Whilst other cultures—such as Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands—open disagreement is seen as positive as long as it is expressed calmly and factually, and emotional expressiveness is seen as a lack of maturity or professionalism.

3. Learn How the Other Culture Builds Trust

Cognitive trust is based on the confidence you feel in someone’s accomplishments, skills, and reliability. Affective trust arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy, or friendship. The dominant type of trust varies dramatically from one part of the world to another.

4. Avoid Yes-or-No Questions

In some cultures the word “yes” may be used when the real meaning is “no". In other cultures “no” often means “Let’s discuss further.” In either case, misunderstanding the message can lead to a waste of time or a setback. In a lot of Eastern cultures where face is critically important, it is rude to look someone you respect and like in the eye and say no to a request. Instead they try to signal in some verbal or non-verbal way that they would like to do what you want, but it is not possible.

5. Be Careful About Putting It in Writing

In America and Northern Europe, repeating key messages frequently and summarising a meeting in writing are common practices to ensure clarity. But this can go sour in negotiations in Africa or Asia where a verbal agreement followed by a written recap of would be a clear signal of lack of trust. And to compound matters, some business cultures, especially the American and Western European rely heavily on written legaL contracts, whereas in countries where relationships carry more weight (and often the legal system is less reliable) these are less common. In these cultures, an agreement marks the beginning of a relationship, but as the situation changes, the details of the agreement will also change.

To read the full HBR article, please click here.


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