Cultural barriers

Barriers at the Negotiation Table: translation, bias and common wisdom

BY Frans Evers with quotes from KATIE SHONK — ON AUGUST 25TH, 2016 / CONFLICT RESOLUTION


At the opening session of this years summerprogram on environment and sustainable developmentof the Ljubljana University I opened my contribution with this picture and asked the the students (Ph.D. level) who she is and why I showed her. After some deliberation we concluded that she is Scarlett Johansson and that the movie “Lost in translation” might be the relation to my teaching about MGA negotiation over the next couple of days. For nobody in the room English was the mothers tongue. More important though was the fact that we came from 7 different countries and that translation is more than a language problem: statements, lessons and examples need to be understood in the context of different cultures. Poor English is in comparison possibly a lesser problem. So to the students: don’t assume that even if you speak the same language the other party understands what you mean.

Than I showed the next picture with the same questions: who is she and why do I show her. Nobody knew (everybody in The Netherlands would know). The assumptions were like actress, model, singer etc. In fact she is one of the fastest women on earth and by far the fastest non coloured. At the recent Olympics she came 5th on the 100 meters and 2nd on the 200 meters. All the people in the room were biased by the way she looks: very pretty and in a beautiful dress. That bias is another pitfall in negotiation: although we all learned and teach “separate the people from the problem”, it is very hard to overcome bias caused by the way people look. In combination with the above issue of “translation” bias can become strong if one has opinions about people with a different cultural background (stereotypes). So to the students: be aware how easy biases can cause mistakes and even failure in negotiation.


Katie Shonk writes in her August 25th column in Conflict Resolution that “research shows that dealmaking across cultures tends to lead to worse outcomes as compared with negotiations conducted within the same culture. This is primarily because cultures are characterized by different behaviours, communication styles, and norms. As a result, when negotiating across cultures, we bring different perspectives to the bargaining table, which in turn may result in potential misunderstandings and a lower likelihood of exploring and discovering integrative, or value-creating, solutions. Instead of relying on stereotypes, try to focus on prototypes—cultural averages on dimensions of behaviour or values.(….)

For example, it is commonly understood that Japanese negotiators tend to have more silent periods during their talks than, say, Brazilians. That said, there is still a great deal of variability within each culture—meaning that some Brazilians speak less than some Japanese do. Thus, it would be a mistake to expect a Japanese negotiator you have never met to be reserved. But if it turns out that a negotiator is especially quiet, you might better understand her behaviour in light of the prototype. In addition, awareness of your own cultural prototypes can help you anticipate how your counterpart might interpret your bargaining behaviour.

A common reason for cross-cultural misunderstandings is that we tend to interpret others’ behaviours, values, and beliefs through the lens of our own culture. To overcome this tendency, we need to learn about the other party’s culture. This means not only researching the customs and behaviours of different cultures but also understanding why people follow these customs and exhibit these behaviours in the first place.

Just as important, not only do countries have unique cultures, but teams and organizations do, too. Before any negotiation, take time to study the context and the person on the other side of the bargaining table, including the various cultures to which he belongs—whether the culture of France, the culture of engineering, or his particular company’s corporate culture.” Then I showed the next picture, which was recognized by some of the students. Richard Holbrook was a well known US diplomat who on behalf of president Clinton negotiated with Serbian President Milosovic for peace in the Balkan area, former Yugoslavia.  


To answer the question why I showed his picture (the portrait is from the cover of the movie his son made about his life) is not so easy. But for me it is clear: there are many people who created wisdom or advice about how to negotiate. For some people these advices become rules: you cannot do this you should do that. They forget that although these rules may work in most circumstances, one should never assume that circumstances are always comparable. Against the advice of most negotiation experts in the State department Holbrook knew what was necessary to convince Milosovic that peace was in his interest: continuation of the bombings on Serbia. This is not done in diplomatic circles: you arrange a cease fire before you go tot he negotiation table. Or parties negotiate about a cease fire first and later they negotiate about peace. Holbrook knew this approach would not work in this particular case. So he sat with Milosovic while bombs fell around them in the capital. Lesson for the students: a successful negotiation should be based on a clear analysis of the specific situation and the people at the table. There are no rules that are applicable in all situations.

Two examples to finish: In some countries there are strict rules for mediations, like you can not continue a case in court while a mediator is working on the case. There would never have been a solution for the Nigeria oil spills if that rule had been strictly applied. Or: Some organizations feel that they should continue public actions while a mediator tries to help solve the conflict. Strict rules that forbid this might prevent a successful negotiation result.

So when trying to be a good negotiator be aware of cultural difficulties in understanding each other, of assumptions that create cultural bias, and do not accept common wisdom about negotiation until you are sure that it will work in the specific instance.