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Intercultural Negotiation is as easy as 1-2-3, or is it?

From the Mediation Matters Blog of Steve Mehta.

It’s as easy as 1-2-3 you say.  Well that may not be so easy if you are dealing with intercultural communications.  I recently read some research on that highlighted the importance of intercultural communications.  Negotiations are often fraught with problems anyway.  Adding the additional element of intercultural differences can make it extremely difficult to deal with.

In a recent study by the University of Alberta’s Elena Nicoladis, an experimental psychologist, and Simone Pika, a lecturer at the University of Manchester, the researchers highlighted the simple issue of counting as creating an intercultural fiasco.   The article, published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, examines cultural differences in the use of hand gestures that could lead to miscommunications or misunderstandings.

Nicoladis and colleagues studied one and two-hand counting gestures and cultural differences between Germans and French and English Canadians. While the majority of Germans use their thumb to begin to sequentially count, the majority of Canadians, both French and English, use their index finger as the numerical kick-off point when counting with their hands.

This simple difference can create major communications errors.  For example, Nicoladis recounted one small problem when she was traveling.  “I asked for directions on the U-Bahn to an older woman and she told me to get off in four stops, so I said, ‘ja, vier’ and held up my four fingers,” she said. “She went off on a tirade saying ‘nein, nein, vier’ and held up the conventional gesture (using her thumb and three fingers).” The differentiation is because, in Germany for instance, the thumb is automatically counted as a numerical value. Thus, Nicoladis was showing five digits instead of four.

Knowledge of this small difference could have also saved the life of an British spy in Quentin Tarantino’s new film Inglourious Basterds; in which a character, an English army officer posing as a German SS captain, is exposed when he orders drinks without using his thumb in the count. He and his colleagues are shot for his faux pas.

While seasoned travellers will often research local customs and social practices to acclimatize themselves to life in their destination of choice, the same must be done when negotiating with people from different cultures.

There are several strategies that can be placed before negotiating with someone from a different culture.

First, remember there are NO STEREOTYPES.  Any information you obtain regarding a culture should be evaluated in the context of the individual.  Relying on stereotypes can be dangerous.

Second, understand that culture does make a difference in how people view the world.  Culture, by the way, is not just a different ethnographic background.  But it can the norms of different groups.  For example, real estate negotiations are different than legal negotiations.  Medical Malpractice negotiations are different than divorce.  Each group can be considered a culture and can have an affect on the negotiation.

Third, conduct research about the culture.  Learn about its history, its art, its sayings, and its beliefs.  What is important to the people from that culture. For example, the Chinese culture is hierarchical, whereas the American society is less so.  Indian history reveals a caste system that has affected the people of that culture.

Fourth, develop a plan of attack that takes into consideration the negotiating research and the cultural norms.  For example, some cultures do not like to get straight down to business; whereas others, like Americans, do.

Fifth, trust your instinct if something seems amiss, it probably is.  Step back and evaluate why.  Is it cultural?

Sixth, build in times or spots where you can take a timeout that you can use to evaluate the new information and reconsider whether your responses and moves are appropriate.

Finally, maintain flexibility at all times.  Don’t just be locked into one course of conduct.

Research Source:

University of Alberta (2009, September 30). Ein, Zwei, Molson Dry? Researcher Says Hand Gesturing To Count In Foreign Countries Can Be Tricky. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 30, 2009


Steve Mehta

Steven G. Mehta is an attorney and mediator providing unique mediation services in a variety of types of civil litigation. His ability to understand the human process and complex emotional issues involved in legal negotiations enables him to effectively assist the parties in obtaining the best possible results during mediation.… MORE >

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