Negotiation Across Cultural Boundaries

by Professor Manie Spoelstra

This article dicusses how a negotiator should approach the differences found in other cultures. Learn about the importance of physical gestures, physical contact, time, silence and much more.

There is a common place belief that over two-thirds of negotiation effectiveness is established through the process of non verbal communication. We can gain considerable enlightenment into an individual's attitudes and feelings through their body language. Facial expressions and various other physical gestures can express a great deal about our emotions and our state of mind. However, these physical cues could be misinterpreted when applied to the noticeable cultural differences in their use and interpretation of nonverbal cues.

Negotiators must learn to understand and recognise differences in the use of non-verbal cues so as not misinterpret the body language of clients, especially those from other cultural backgrounds, as this could have costly repercussions.

Areas of Misunderstanding:

Generally, body language can be broken down into the following categories:

Facial expressions

Eye contact


Use of space


Sounds and other actions

Facial Expressions and Eye Contact

In comparing African, Arabian or Asian women with American women for example, we should quickly learn that there are many cultural variations, and we should discover that the only behaviour they all share is in the universal meaning offered by a smile!

Cultural Similarities

  Smile Eye Contact
Arabian Y  
Asian Y  
European Y Y
American Y Y
Japanese Y  
South African Y Y

It is relatively common for many Asians and Africans to offer respect by looking down and to avoid direct eye contact. Europeans and North Americans on the other hand consider the avoidance of eye contact as lacking attention, and might regard this as being disrespectful.

Personal Space

The amount of personal space required from an individual may also vary from culture to culture. For example, people of the same gender in the Middle East stand much closer to each other than North Americans and Europeans, while people of the opposite gender tend to stand much further apart.

Another example is that Japanese males will normally stand four or five feet apart when having a discussion. It is likely that most Europeans and North Americans would consider having a discussion at this distance somewhat peculiar.


Physical contact or touching is greatly affected by someone's cultural background. Arabs for example, may touch once or not at all, while North Americans might engage in some manner of physical contact between two and four times an hour, according to some researchers. It has also been observed that people who reside in the United Kingdom, certain parts of Northern Europe and Asia touch far less frequently, while in France and Italy people tend to touch each other far more often.

It is clear that physical contact is a delicate issue. To safeguard yourself in a negotiation it is best for a negotiator to avoid touching as much as possible.

Beckoning with the Fingers

There are many areas in the world where the use of an upright forefinger to beckon them to you is considered especially impolite. Also, the universal gesture to express one's disdain by raising a digit finger from a clasped fist on an extended arm is considered offensive almost everywhere.

Crossed Legs

One minor gesture that could result in causing deep offence occurs when the foot on the upper crossed leg is pointed directly and frequently in the direction of people, especially those from the Middle East. Bouncing your foot while crossed over your knee and facing a person from an Islamic culture might cause discomfort or even revulsion as it might symbolize an accusation or be perceived symbolically as a threatening weapon. A negotiator should not cross their legs when negotiating with people of Islamic origin and always take care in which direction the foot is pointed.

Another feature of body language to avoid is to never keep your arms crossed over your chest while leaning back in your chair with your legs crossed, as this could be perceived as demonstrating a defensive posture or revulsion.

Other Gestures

Gesturing with a clenched fist or pointing the index finger suggests aggression or frustration, and negotiators should avoid using these gestures.

Several other gestures to avoid are 'thumbs up' and 'okay' signs. Although these gestures have a positive meaning in the UK and America, they are considered obscene in when used in Iran and Spain. The 'okay' sign has a similar derogatory meaning in Greece, parts of Eastern Europe and Latin America. It could also mean 'worthless' or 'zero' in France.

Shaking the head from side to side could indicate agreement in Asia, but elsewhere in the world a similar shaking of the head means the total opposite.

Sounds and other Irritations

Audible signals that suggest nervousness include clearing the throat, sighing or making 'phew' noises are readily discernible. Also, smoking cigarettes, jangling coins in the pocket, fidgeting, perspiration or hand wringing also clearly display a degree of apprehension. Other subtle gestures such as pinching or picking at flesh or fingernails, tugging the ears or clothes while seated, covering the mouth or looking away when conversing can also imply or create suspicion. This is further exasperated when a negotiator edges away such as leaning back, or if the feet or body is turned sideways towards the exit. Other subtle gestures in this regard also include sideways glances, rubbing one's eyes, touching and rubbing of the nose or buttoning the coat while drawing away.

Physical cues that represent a lack of cooperation might be revealed through a stiffened back, or the authoritarian stance of hands clasped behind the back. Placing your hands on the lapel of your jackets will also send the same message.

A negotiator might feel frustrated by uncooperative behaviour. This frustration could be expressed through audible sounds such as taking short breaths, clenching the hands tightly or making fist-like gestures. As this frustration level intensifies, more blatant gestures may follow such as pointing the index finger, running hands through hair and rubbing one's neck. If a negotiator possesses more self-control, they may hold their arms behind their backs, grip their wrists, or lock their ankles while seated.

Other Areas of Misunderstanding:

There are habits asides from nonverbal communication that could result in irritating a person from another culture. These include and relate to the lack of attention to time and timing, interpersonal relationships, dress, silence and the use of certain words and phrases.


The inability of clients to keep to a time table is probably one of the most glaring sources of irritation found in cross-cultural negotiation. There are cultures that have little regard to the precision of time and timing. On the other hand, people from this culture milieu cannot understand the preoccupation of Americans and others with time. People from South America and Africa may claim that the inability to be on time is unavoidable and unforeseen due to other duties - such as those involving family or friends - or unexpected duties placed on them by members of ruling families.

People from western culture do not fully appreciate the concept of duty that some cultures have towards family situations that are, in general, far greater than those undertaken, or expected in the Western society. "My brother telephoned and asked to see me, so I had to go to him; I am sorry I had to miss our meeting" is typical of the remark an Arab, African or Spaniard would make. They appear to believe that the situation involving a family member should be understood, yet they often fail to understand that such an excuse is not good enough for most Westerners. The Westerner would have been far less annoyed had they received a phone call to rearrange the meeting.

'Time' is a major area where cultures clash. Precise habits are often regarded by some cultures as peculiar because it disregards the importance of the right 'psychological timing' in a negotiation. Westerners will often forge ahead with unpopular subjects simply because the clock is ticking and for the simple fact that it is on the agenda.

Interpersonal Relationships

Western negotiators are frequently clueless about personal relationships and the under currents that dominate decision making in some countries and cultures. They must learn to be patient. However, they should always be prepared to act very quickly once a decision to proceed has been taken. This can occur suddenly and without warning. Roughly speaking, 95% of time spent in Japanese business activity will involve discussion, amassing information, and waiting. This will be followed by a 5% period of intense work against impossible deadlines.

Rude Words

Many Westerners will observe that some officials, such as traffic police or those at immigration or customs posts, might appear to be very rude in their demands: "Give passport now" and "I want documents" without using phrases such as 'please' and 'thank you'. While many people from western culture will consider this inexcusably rude and take offence, they fail to recognize that the local may not have a command of English above that of functional necessity.

Use of First Names

Many cultures will easily sense when personal relationships have developed sufficiently that the use of first names may be adopted as natural and normal. They may realize, for example, that such a point may be reached earlier with North Americans, later with the French, and somewhere in between these two nationalities for Britons and other nationalities. Other cultures rarely use first names, even amongst friends (e.g. Japanese). It is vital to make sure a negotiator understands the customs related to the use of first names before the negotiation commences.


Generally speaking, a business visitor to a foreign country should dress well. Males should dress in a good suit and tie in the majority of foreign countries. One should learn to be patient, punctual, expect to wait, and do not be overly demonstrative in personality or mannerism. Female negotiators who attend Islamic countries should take care to dress with slightly lower hemlines than they would do so in the West whilst ensuring that the shoulders and arms are covered down to the wrist.

Overt Emotions

Expressions or losing one's temper could, in many cases, end all further discussion or association. An individual who loses their temper will, in many countries, be regarded with suspicion. They must learn to alter this behaviour must be changed if the project is to go forward. They may have to rebuild the whole process of developing trust and establishing a close and personal relationship and start from the very beginning.

Many people from Western cultures view silence as embarrassing and will seek to fill a gap in conversation. Many other cultures are comfortable with silence and are content simply by being in another's company. Vocalization is not always essential in these situations. There can be long periods of silence, intermingled with periods of gossip and story telling.

Many cultures are aware and possibly bemused by the stress that silence can cause in Westerners. It is not unknown for some negotiators to deliberately manufacture an embarrassing period of silence whilst bargaining. The tactic could be employed to generate a concession from the other side. The solution is to be prepared to keep silent and remain that way.

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1 of 1 people found the following comment useful:

Excellent reading - 2011 Oct 2
Commentator: Hannah (Australia - Queensland)

"Thanks for the useful information! It's pretty amazing that while one country finds something acceptable, perhaps even normal, another is disgusted by the action.
Thank you"

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