Negotiating across cultures

Published on August 2nd, 2021

Successful negotiation in a cross-cultural environment requires agility and an understanding of the nuances of the culture you are dealing with. Read on to discover the negotiating styles of seven countries around the world.

While the desire to secure the best deal is the same in any negotiation, the route to achieving this varies greatly between cultures. Some aim for a win-win outcome, while others always expect concessions. To some cultures, bargaining is part of the fabric of society, while to others, it’s considered uncomfortable and unnecessary; with a more direct approach preferred.

Of course, every individual is different – but cultures around the world certainly display an element of consistency in their negotiating style.

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The USA: Speed, cost and efficiency

Americans aim for a zero-sum result, meaning one side’s loss is the other side’s gain. Information is used as power. Each side has a limit, and it is hoped that common ground will be found where these bargaining zones overlap. The transaction, not the relationship, is what matters; speed, cost and efficiency are useful bargaining chips. An action plan is desirable; Americans do not like vagueness.

Canada: Information sharing and problem solving

In contrast, Canadians usually aim for a win-win outcome, in which information sharing and problem-solving lead to gains for both parties. Expect negotiating style to be polite, direct and efficient and for hard fact to be seen as more important than the relationship.

China: A soft sell and a hard buy

The Chinese are tough, canny negotiators. Large groups are always used for negotiations, rarely individuals, with one spokesperson per group. Chinese negotiations are characterized by a soft sell and a hard buy; initial offers will be extreme and generous concessions need to be made. Watch out for certain tactics. These may include controlling the meeting venue and schedule; withholding information; threatening to do business with a competitor; displays of mock anger (very disconcerting in a country where saving ‘face’ is so important) and pure attrition. Your counterparts may invoke the ‘guanxi’ argument, too, calling in favors from their business network which, for the purpose of the deal, includes you. Be thoroughly prepared, patient, reserved and dignified.

Norway: Collaboration and consensus

Norway is almost the complete opposite. Negotiating meetings are collaborative, direct and efficient. Do not play games. Avoid hype or threats and on no account go in with a high-low gambit – starting with an inflated price and expecting to reduce it. The Norwegians (and other Scandinavians) will aim for consensus in the group. Your goal should be a win-win outcome.

United Arab Emirates: Price and relationships

In the Arab world, negotiations are driven by two things: price and personal relationships. Although selling benefits is critical, it is not the primary factor. Expect a negotiating meeting to be fluid, with constant interruptions. Although much of the emphasis of the discussion will be on your relationship and productive future together, it will still all come down to price. Know your bottom line and don’t waiver. Know when to walk away – your counterpart will often call you back. A seller will start off very high with a much, much lower actual price in mind. Keep a few cards up your sleeve for last-minute concessions. Arabs expect a win-lose outcome to negotiations and you must show that you are prepared to give a little.

Australia: A sense of fair play

Hype-fueled arguments and high-pressure techniques will not impress Australians and are most likely to provoke some caustic comments. Derisory remarks about others or competitors can be viewed also with suspicion or as not being ‘fair play’; this is a nation that favors the underdog. What is said will be taken literally, and Australians expect you to take what they say literally as well. Storming off in a mock fit of indignation will make you look foolish. Australians do not have the same tradition of bartering as, for example, their Asian neighbors, and expect an offer to include only a small margin for compromise and focus on a win-win outcome.

Zambia: Flexibility and commitment

Zambians, along with several other southern and east African cultures, aim for a win-win outcome so if your potential partner demonstrates flexibility and willingness to commit, try to do the same yourself. Expect a degree of haggling, which is part of everyday life. Instead of giving you a price, your counterpart may put you on the spot by asking what you want to pay, which can un-nerve the inexperienced negotiator. A starting price on any deal may be unrealistically high but the goal of any deal is to get this to a level that is acceptable to both parties.


Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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