CULTURAL IMPACT ON NEGOTIATION
By Andrew Boughton
Looking broadly across the several cultures, two important lessons stand out. The first is that regional generalizations very often are not correct. For example, Japanese and Korean negotiation styles are quite similar in some ways, but in other ways they could not be more different. The second lesson learned from the research is that Japan is an exceptional place: On almost every dimension of negotiation style considered, the Japanese are on or near the end of the scale. For example, the Japanese use the lowest amount of eye contact of the cultures studied. Sometimes, Americans are on the other end. But actually, most of the time Americans are somewhere in the middle. The reader will see this evinced in the data presented in this section. The Japanese approach, however, is most distinct, even sui generis.
Cultural differences cause four kinds of problems in international business negotiations, at the levels of: Language, Nonverbal behaviors, Values, Thinking and decision-making processes.
Translation problems are often substantial in international negotiations. And, when languages are linguistically distant, greater problems should be anticipated. Particularly daunting can be work in global negotiation. Often the language used is English, but it may be spoken as a second language by most executives at the table. Indeed, native speakers from England, India, and the United States often have trouble understanding one another. Exact translations in international interactions are a goal almost never attained.
Moreover, language differences are sometimes exploited in interesting ways. Many senior executives in foreign countries speak and understand some English, but prefer to speak in their “stronger” native language and use an interpreter. Thus, we’ve see a senior Russian negotiator asking questions in Russian. The interpreter then translated the question for his American counterpart. While the interpreter spoke, the American’s attention (gaze direction) was given to the interpreter. However, the Russian’s gaze direction was at the American. Therefore, the Russian could carefully and unobtrusively observe the American’s facial expressions and nonverbal responses. Additionally, when the American spoke, the senior Russian had twice the response time. Because he understood English, he could formulate his responses during the translation process.
What’s this extra response time worth in a strategic conversation? What’s it worth to be carefully able to observe the nonverbal responses of your top-level counterpart in a high-stakes business negotiation? Simply stated, bilingualism is not a common characteristic for Americans, and therefore competitors with greater language skills are afforded a natural advantage in international commerce.
Additionally, a common complaint heard from American managers regards foreign clients and partners breaking into side conversations in their native languages. At best, it is seen as impolite, and quite often American negotiators are likely to attribute something sinister to the content of the foreign talk—“They’re plotting or telling secrets.” This is a frequent American mistake.
The usual purpose of such side conversations is to straighten out a translation problem. For instance, one Korean may lean over to another and ask, “What’d he say?” Or, the side conversation can regard a disagreement among the foreign team members. Both circumstances should be seen as positive signs by Americans—that is, getting translations straight enhances the efficiency of the interactions, and concessions often follow internal disagreements. But because most Americans speak only one language, neither circumstance is appreciated. By the way, people from other countries are advised to give Americans a brief explanation of the content of their first few side conversations to assuage the sinister attributions.
But, there are problems at the level of language beyond translations and interpreters. Data from simulated negotiations are informative. In the study, the verbal behaviors of negotiators in 15 of the cultures (six negotiators in each of the 15 groups) were videotaped. The numbers in the body of Exhibit 1 represent the percentages of statements that were classified into each category listed. That is, 7 percent of the statements made by Japanese negotiators were classified as promises, 4 percent as threats, 7 percent as recommendations, and so on. The verbal bargaining behaviors used by the negotiators during the simulations proved to be surprisingly similar across cultures. Negotiations in all 15 cultures were composed primarily of information-exchange tactics—questions and self-disclosures. Note that the Israelis are on the low end of the continuum of self-disclosures. Their 30 percent (near the Japanese, Spaniards, and the English-speaking Canadians at 34 percent) was the lowest across all 15 groups, suggesting that they are the most reticent about giving (that is, communicating) information. Overall, however, the patterns of verbal tactics used were surprisingly similar across the diverse cultures.
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