Press Release

Negotiating Around the world: Navigating the minefields

Do you arrive at your meeting five minutes early, or on principle half an hour late? Who do you field in your negotiation team? Do age, beauty or linguistic gymnastics confer an advantage? And, what skulduggery should you look out for from your counterparty?

We asked TGP consultants from around the world to share their insights into how to navigate the minefields of cross-cultural negotiation.

Miles Hodge from South Africa

‘Africa time’ does not lend itself, as such, to the notion of punctuality and timekeeping. More time than you may at first consider necessary needs to be allowed for during negotiation. Moreover, it is essential that you invest time upfront in relationship building. With fewer commercial choices in South Africa, business is fundamentally driven by this. Language too can have a tactical dimension. South Africa has eleven official languages, and while English is the common one, it’s possible for a team to hide behind the fact that the meeting is not being held in their first language. Someone who previously appeared to be fluent in English may suddenly become linguistically challenged as the negotiation heats up. Make sure you recognize this tactic and adjust your approach accordingly!

South Africa is still very patriarchal. The most sensible advice is be prepared and aware. Similarly, the age of the negotiator can play a role. Direct eye contact from a young person to an older person can be seen as disrespectful so is best minimized. Broader cultural dynamics make it essential that due process is followed and the right people are spoken to in order to get to the decision maker. Finally, a small but significant piece of advice. Take into account the numeracy of your counterparty. Historically lower levels of maths education can mean calculations within a discussion take longer. Be respectful and allow all parties the time they need. It’s in no one’s interests to reach a number that is misunderstood and then reneged on. 

Alex Adamo from Italy 

In many places in Europe, being just three minutes late can be considered rude and unacceptable. In Italy, time is, shall we say, more “fluid” and it can be entirely acceptable for a meeting to start up to thirty minutes late. Moreover, lateness is sometimes used as a power statement to show just who’s boss. A client I worked with in Italy told me how the buyer he was dealing with would consistently be up to two hours late for their meetings. The net effect was Giovanni felt disempowered and out of control. After discussing an appropriate strategy to adopt, Giovanni went back to his buyer and told him politely, but firmly, “If you make me wait more than five minutes again, we won’t do business.”
The buyer did not speak for an intensely uncomfortable five seconds, but then said, “I am very sorry, it won’t happen again.” 

Proxemics is the study of how close people tend to get to each other when they interact (Hall, 1963). While some cultures may extend their arm fully when shaking hands, Italians can get as close as kissing each other on the cheek during greetings. Equally, it is culturally acceptable for an Italian to invade your personal space when emphasizing a point in a tense negotiation. This behavior may unsettle the international negotiator who has not prepared for it!

Finally, in Italy, verbosity is greatly admired and more is definitely more! Using the most amount of words possible to describe a concept indicates wisdom and language skills, all of which suggest credibility. In negotiation, however, the more you say the more you give away. Silence can be the best form of counter-attack. Three seconds of silence in Italy can feel longer and more uncomfortable than fi ve seconds in the UK, and nine seconds in Japan.

Pyotr Sviridov from Russia

Preparation before a negotiation can get a little…heated. Despite the antiquated image of Russians as unsmiling and cold, emotion plays a very important role in Russian negotiations. Establishing an emotional connection between parties is as important as agreeing the commercial terms. Russians will ask themselves – “Can I trust you?”, “Are you the right person to talk to?”, and even, “Do I like you?” This inherent need to connect necessitates time given to the “preliminaries” of a negotiation. One common activity often called upon to contribute to a successful pre-negotiation period is meeting informally in a Russian “banya” or sauna. One of the main Moscow banyas markets itself as the ideal place for business meetings and chatting together in the baths is seen as the ultimate ice-breaker, as a neutral territory where both parties feel at ease (or at least the Russian ones do!). 

The ‘creative’ negotiator is highly prized in Russia and creativity is hardwired into the genes of Russian negotiators. With the complexities of the law and volatile market conditions, Russians have evolved to find a way to get things done. They are ingenious, proactive and think laterally. They establish close personal connections. If you can do the same, you open up enormous opportunities. 

Once the negotiation is underway several discomfiting tactics may be deployed. This can include invading personal space and confrontational behavior. If you are on the receiving end, it’s important to stand your ground. Be prepared and demonstrate a resolve to do so. This will help to ensure that your counterparty recognizes you as an equal.

Wai Lau writing for Hong Kong, China, Taiwan 

Due to Hong Kong’s unique history, they are the closest to a “Western” negotiation style, but be aware that people in Hong Kong can be extremely blunt and will put things on the table with no qualms at all. Their determination and hardworking culture can come across as uncompromising.

Taiwan, just a short flight away and Western educated, is in contrast to Hong Kong, very relaxed. They have a slower pace of business and take time getting things done. China is a country of many faces. Your counterparty could have grown up in metropolitan China and have since done business all over the world. Or they could have been raised and still live in the rural provinces running a large agricultural joint venture. Despite these complexities, some general rules can apply to all:

»  Understand the concept of life changing. China had one of the lowest literacy rates post World War II, but today ranks one of the highest in the world. The person you’re negotiating with could have personally experienced such dramatic change.

»   Stay away from stereotypes. Some “junior” people you negotiate with may have responsibility for $20m a year. 

»   Be aware of hierarchy and the traditional deference to age and experience.

»   Language skills can run deep and may surprise you.

Rodrgio Malandre covering Latam 

In Latin America there is typically a different approach to business depending on whether you are dealing with a local Latin American company vs that of a multinational organization. Hierarchies, bureaucracy and following process tends to play an important part in negotiations with Latin American companies, while multinationals are often able to work in a quicker, flexible manner.

Conversations here are often verbose. People take a long time to say things and feel the need to express and justify themselves – which provides an excellent source of information for the skilled listener. In addition, people often need “higher approval” to accept or concede decisions, either because they are very cautious or because they are truthfully not empowered. Despite this, it is unwise to attempt to “jump” seniority levels. This would almost certainly disrupt relationships. Instead, ensure you leave the time to go through the process and accept it as the cultural way.

A few countries in LATAM over-index on bureaucracy and there can be a lot of red tape. As such negotiations might take longer and require greater creativity to solve issues, avoid restrictions and make deals work.

Latin Americans are generally very polite and friendly in negotiations. Nevertheless, this positive attitude towards people doesn’t mean that the other party trusts you. The idea of maintaining a “good relationship” with your counterpart often means little conflict, being polite, avoiding disruption, but never lowering your guard.

Floris Wils from the Netherlands 

Holland has a rich history and trade negotiating comes naturally to Dutch people; you could say it’s in our DNA.  Timekeeping may be fluid in some parts of Europe, but the Dutch like to be on time. Don’t expect to be kept waiting for a meeting, and don’t be late – unless you are using this as a tactic. 

Although the Netherlands has some very large companies, quite a few are still privately owned. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself negotiating directly with the CEO or owner. While these businesses aren’t on the Stock Exchange, they can be powerful in revenue and scope. Don’t be intimidated by the job title and never underestimate your own power. Remain focused on getting inside their head – albeit a very senior one. 

The Dutch are, in general, tough negotiators. Be prepared for directness and a willingness to embrace conflict. Use this straight-talking style as an opportunity to get information, understand their company and the key stakeholders. Bear in mind the maxim “going Dutch”. This saying didn’t appear from nowhere, so let’s just say that in Holland we are not inclined to fritter or give away money or indeed value. 

A final thought. Due to a milk surplus in the 1970s, the government in Holland launched a campaign extolling the virtues of several daily glasses of milk, and the habit has stuck with many. So, if your counterpart has a glass of the white stuff and not the more usual tea, coffee or water – pass no comment. It’s entirely normal.

Cyril Fontaine from France

French people are well-known to have a natural need to argue. This desire for argument stems from the education system which has an early focus on the importance of language and rhetoric. Students spend hours learning how to analyze, interpret and argue, as they immerse themselves in historic French texts from literature, philosophy and history. 

Furthermore, there are about five noted engineering and commercial colleges (the “voie royale”), where people are recruited as the managers of the future. Graduates are seen as the “crème de la crème” – and leapfrog over the more junior positions to start near the top. 

The sum of these two observations – 14 years of education based on rhetoric and a love of argument alongside six years of theoretical studies through the “royal path” – is a healthy ego, a desire to win, and a need to argue!

How to respond? There are three cornerstones of what makes a skilled negotiator that will help you when negotiating in France: 1) Plan and prepare; 2) Recognize that people negotiate with people; 3) Negotiation takes place in the other party’s head. 

However, perhaps the most useful thing you could do – although certainly not the quickest or easiest – is to learn French. Many discussions will quickly turn to French, and it will build trust and avoid your counterparty feeling inferior (and therefore less collaborative) because of their perceived lower level of English. Bon chance!

Thomas Strack from Germany

Germans, particularly the older generation, tend to keep business and private life very separate. It is quite common that informal discussion will not include mention of their family or hobbies which can make relationship building more challenging. Be aware that a fi rm handshake as greeting and goodbye with men and women alike is a very common custom – but not so much the kiss on the cheek!

Furthermore, German is not “German”.  Language dialects are so diverse that the people from the north in “Ostfriesland” will not necessarily understand their fellow countrymen from “Bavaria”, let alone people from the bordering countries speaking Austrian or Swiss German. Establishing the language to be used in the negotiation ahead of time is therefore worthwhile. 

On arrival at your negotiation meeting, punctuality will be expected, but remember the German negotiator will expect the planned end time of your meeting to be adhered to as well. Structure, organization, process and order are important disciplines here. Once you begin your negotiation ensure there is a clear agenda and follow it sequentially ending with a summary and follow-up. If you want to wrong-foot a German, ignore the above!

You may find that keeping silent comes more naturally here than in other European cultures. Germans have less of an urge to fill an awkward silence and prefer only to speak when they have something meaningful to say. Your counterpart in Germany will appreciate precision and directness, with minimal beating about the bush. Say it like it is. The use of buzz words, platitudes or ambiguous phrases can be regarded as incompetence and time wasting. If you want respect, keep an eye on the waffle.

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