Negotiations and Selling: How Cultural Differences Come into Play

By Chip Tames

Negotiating around the world is, contrary to popular belief, not much different from negotiating in the U.S. While there are cultural differences to take into account, most of the same principles and skills apply. For example, the importance of preparing in advance for questions that may arise, the value of having alternatives in mind, and the impact of anchoring all apply to negotiations in any country or culture.

The few differences that do exist are more about being respectful of the other culture than they are about adjusting negotiation strategies. Be who you are, but keep these six adjustments in mind the next time you negotiate with other cultures:

  1. Watch the small talk: While some cultures view small talk as the norm, others believe small talk makes you appear untrustworthy. For example, in the U.S., it’s very common to enter a meeting with a conversation regarding personal business – your thoughts on the weather, perhaps your upcoming vacation, your new puppy – these are all perfectly acceptable topics of conversation for Americans.

    However, in some cultures, talking about your personal life may be viewed as a negative. Some view it as wasting time. For others, it may even erode their trust in you, as it may be seen as mischievous. Be aware of what you may be inclined to say and be ready to adopt a more conservative stance until you see how others are interacting.

  2. Collectivism vs. individualism: A stark difference exists when it comes to collectivism versus individualism. In the U.S., a company might price out three vendors and choose the one that’s the best fit for them.

    In Asia, it works a little differently. For example, if there were three vendors vying for an Asian company’s business, each vendor would get its turn. They would be concerned about offending vendors and would want to treat them all fairly. Keeping all the vendors happy is the goal. In Asia, the relationship is the driver; in the U.S., however, the deal goes to the vendor that’s the best fit with the best price. There’s more focus on getting the deal done versus nurturing the relationship.

  3. It’s not personal, it’s business: In North America and Latin America, businesspeople are willing to be much more confrontational than in other parts of the world, such as Asia, where they tend to be more collaborative. Some cultures are much less willing to take an action that might harm others in order to get ahead.

    It can be difficult to negotiate with a tough businessperson if you’re used to taking a weaker stance. It makes the weaker party much more vulnerable if he or she isn’t prepared to deal with someone who’s more direct. It’s also important to remember that tough negotiators aren’t being “mean.” It’s business, not personal.

  4. Keep it simple: In situations where language barriers may exist, one piece of advice that is often overlooked is to keep your speech straightforward. The most effective way to communicate is to use simple terms instead of your “fanciest” words. While those in other countries may speak English, keep in mind it is their second language. Avoid ambiguity and be clear. This will help reduce miscommunication.
  5. Watch your emotions: Keep physical cues in mind as well. In the Western world, eye contact is respectful. However, in Asian or Arab cultures, prolonged eye contact can be seen as impolite. In Asia, delivery may be more stoic, while, in Latin America, people tend to be more emotional.

    Some cultures may be more inclined to use their hands or raise their voices when they speak. This doesn’t indicate disrespect – it represents that they express emotion differently.

  6. Pricing – is it flexible?: In the U.S., most salespeople understand that prices are negotiable. But it isn’t this way everywhere. In Germany, for example, there’s more resistance to flexibility in pricing. They view it as, “Let’s get this done,” and “The price is the price.” Germans are accustomed to swift, professional meetings that get to the point, with little back and forth. Americans are used to informal meetings with small talk that may require multiple back-and-forth exchanges before a deal is consummated.

While many things remain the same regardless of where in the world you’re conducting business, being aware of the subtleties that affect negotiations may mean the difference between landing the deal and wondering where you may have gone wrong.

As a master facilitator for SNI, Chip Tames has trained companies of all sizes around the world, including several Fortune 50 companies. Before SNI, he was a sales manager for Dale Carnegie.