Negotiation Across Cultural Boundaries

by Professor Manie Spoelstra

This article analyses the importance of understanding and recognising differences in the use of non-verbal cues and body language of customers, especially those from other cultural backgrounds, to avoid costly misinterpretation during negotiation.

It is said that over two-thirds of the effectiveness of negotiation is determined by non verbal communication. Body language can therefore frequently provide valuable insight into a person's feelings and attitudes. Gestures and facial expressions can communicate diverse emotions and attitudes. They are, however, often misleading due to the marked cultural differences in the use and interpretation of nonverbal cues.

It is therefore important to understand and recognise differences in the use of non-verbal cues, so that the body language of customers, especially those from other cultural backgrounds as your own, is not the cause of costly misinterpretation.

Areas of Misunderstanding:

Broadly speaking, body language can be divided into the following categories:

Facial expressions

Eye contact


Use of space


Sounds and other actions

Facial Expressions and Eye Contact

If we, for example, compare African, Arabian or Asian women with American women, we shall quickly establish that there are many cultural variations, and that the only behaviour that has the same universal meaning seems to be the smile!

Cultural Similarities

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

Many Asians, Africans and Orientals will look down and avoid direct eye contact as a sign of respect, while for Europeans and North Americans lack of eye contact is often an indication of lack of attention, and could be regarded as impolite.

Personal Space

An individual's need for personal space varies from culture to culture. In the Middle East, people of the same sex stand much closer to each other than North Americans and Europeans, while people of the opposite sex stand much further apart.

Japanese men stand four or five feet apart when having a discussion Europeans and North Americans would probably regard having a conversation at this distance rather odd.


Touching is significantly influenced by someone's background and culture. Some cultures, such as Arabs, may touch once or not at all, while North Americans could touch each other between two and four times an hour, according to some researchers. People from the United Kingdom, certain parts of Northern Europe and Asia touch far less, while in France and Italy people tend to touch far more frequently.

It is obvious that touch is a sensitive issue and, to be on the safe side, avoid touching during negotiation as far as possible.

Beckoning with the Fingers

In many regions of the world, to ask someone to approach you by beckoning with the upright forefinger is distinctly rude, as is the defiant gesture of disapproval indicated by the raising of a digit finger from a clasped fist on an extended arm. (The latter gesture is known to be, and usually intended to be, rude in almost any society).

Crossed Legs

There is a lesser gesture that could bemore offensive than expected, namely when the foot on the upper crossed leg is pointed directly and frequently in the direction of people from especially the Middle East. The foot, when 'bounced on the knee' in the general direction of people from Islamic countries, can cause discomfort, perhaps even distaste, since it may symbolise, in body language terms, an accusing or threatening weapon. The solution is not to cross the legs when in such company and to take care in which direction the foot is pointed.

If you also keep your arms crossed over your chest and lean back in your chair besides just keeping your legs crossed, you could be demonstrating distaste or defensiveness.

Other Gestures

Gestures such as a clenched fist or pointing the index finger often reflect an aggressive or frustrated attitude. Negotiators should avoid using these gestures.

Other gestures to avoid are 'thumbs up' and 'okay' signs. These have positive connotations in the UK and America, but in Iran the 'thumbs up' sign is considered obscene, while the 'okay' sign has a similar meaning in Greece, parts of Eastern Europe and Latin America. It could also mean 'worthless' or 'zero' in France.

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

Sounds and other Irritators

Audible signs of nervousness such as clearing the throat, sighing or making 'phew' noises are easily recognisable. Cigarette smoking, jingling coins in the pocket, fidgeting in the chair, beads of perspiration or wringing hands are other signs of growing nervousness. More subtle indicators are pinching or picking at flesh or fingernails, tugging at the ears or clothes when seated, covering the mouth when speaking or simply not looking at the person being addressed. Some of these gestures can also imply suspicion. This is compounded if the negotiator edges away (or leans back) or if the feet or body is turned sideways towards the exit. More subtle indications are sideways glances, rubbing of the eyes, touching and rubbing of the nose or buttoning the coat while drawing away.

A lack of cooperation can be manifested through a stiffened back, or the authoritarian stance of hands grasped behind the back. Hands on the lapels of jackets will also send the same message.

Negotiators may be frustrated by any uncooperative behaviour. The frustration may materialise itself by audible sounds, taking short breaths or by clenching the hands tightly or making fist-like gestures. As this frustration increases, other more visible gestures may follow such as pointing the index finger, running hands through hair and rubbing of the neck. If negotiators are more self-controlled, they may hold their arms behind their backs, grip their wrists, or lock their ankles while sitting.

Other Areas of Misunderstanding:

Apart from nonverbal communication, other cultures could also be irritated by other habits and actions of negotiators such as the lack of attention to time and timing, to interpersonal relationships, dress, silence and the use of certain words and phrases.


The inability of customers to keep to time is probably one of the most significant irritations in cross-cultural negotiation. Those cultures that are less aware of exactness in time and timing, often cannot understand the preoccupation of Americans and others with time, and vice versa. South Americans and Africans may claim that the inability to be on time is only the unavoidable and unforeseen occurrence of other duties - such as those involving family or friends - or unexpected duties placed on them by members of ruling families that draw them away from agreed meetings with Westerners.

Westerners normally have no concept of the absolute 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 seem to believe that the situation involving a family member would be understood, and they often fail to comprehend that such a reason would not be good enough for most Westerners. The Westerner would have been far less bothered if a phone call, rearranging the meeting, had been received. 'Time' is therefore a major area of culture clash. Precise habits are often regarded by some cultures as strange because it disregards the importance of the right 'psychological timing' in negotiation. Westerners will often plough ahead with unpopular subjects simply because the clock and agenda indicate that they should.

Interpersonal Relationships

Western negotiators are often hopelessly unaware of the personal relationships and general local under currents that dominate decision making in some countries and cultures. They are therefore well advised to be patient. But they should always be ready to act very quickly once a decision to proceed has been taken. This can occur quite without warning. As a rough guide, 95% of time spent in Japanese business activity will be spent discussing, collecting information, and waiting, followed by a 5% period of intense work against impossible deadlines.

Rude Words

Many Westerners will notice that some officials, such as traffic police or those at immigration or customs posts, appear rude in their demands: "Give passport now" and "I want documents" without the adoption of 'please' and 'thank you'. To many Westerners this is inexcusably rude English and quick offence is taken. They therefore fail to recognise that the local may not have a command of English above that of functional necessity.

Use of First Names

Most cultures will easily sense when personal relationships have developed to such a point that the use of first names may be adopted as natural and normal. They may know, for example, that such a point may be reached earlier with the Americans, later with the French, and somewhere in between these two nationalities for Britons and other nationalities. Some cultures, though, seldom use first names, even amongst friends (e.g. Japanese), and it could be important to make sure of the customs related to the use of first names before negotiation commences.


As a general rule a business visitor to a foreign country should dress well. Men should dress in a good suit and tie in most foreign countries. Be patient, be punctual, expect to wait, and do not be overly demonstrative in personality or mannerism. Businesswomen in Islamic countries should take care to dress with slightly lower hemlines than in the West and with the shoulders and arms covered down to the wrist.

Overt Emotions

Public loss of temper could, in many cases, end all further discussion or association. A person who has been seen to lose his temper will, in many countries, be regarded with suspicion and this behaviour must be changed if the project is to go forward. The whole process of developing trust and a close and personal relationship will then have to start from the very beginning.

Most Westerners find silence embarrassing and will seek to fill a gap in conversation. Many cultures are wholly unembarrassed by silence and are content with being in another's company. Speech is not always essential on such occasions, and there can be long periods of silence, intermingled with periods of gossip and story telling. Many cultures are aware of, and are perhaps amused by, the stress that silence can cause in Westerners, and it is not unknown for negotiators deliberately to create an embarrassing period of silence when bargaining perhaps to encourage a concession from the other side. The solution is to be ready to fall silent, and to remain silent.

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1 of 2 people found the following comment useful:

Some mistakes about Spaniards - 2016 Apr 9
Commentator: Jesus (Spain)

"I have read your article and I am surprised about the line related to the Spanish culture. The mistake is that If a Spaniard receive a call from a relative, he does not reject his compromise (meeting or other) except if it is a urgency. Please, get more information about Spanish culture before writing this kind of articles."

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12 of 12 people found the following comment useful:

good reading - 2008 Jun 20
Commentator: Troy N (Australia - Victoria)

"I found this article very interesting and helpful, both for the course I'm completing in TAA and to take some tips for use in both work and general practice."

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