Observing cultural norms

23 February 2012
I have just returned from one of my increasingly regular trips to China. Globalisation has resulted in a marked increase in international procurement in recent years, especially in manufacturing, and as a negotiation specialist I am often asked about the importance of cultural issues. In the Far East, for example, how much of a cultural faux pas is it to fail to bring a gift for your host, or to hand over your business card with one hand? There is no doubt that if you are selling it would be silly not to be aware of the cultural nuances of your overseas client. However, even allowing for the fact that a top-class buyer will always ‘sell’ his or her business to the supplier, the situation is completely different when you are on the purchasing side of the negotiation. For a start, it is critical to set and control the tone of the discussions. This means doing things your way. It is very easy, feeling that you are being sensitive to local cultural norms, to be led along a line that you would not normally go. Of course it is good to be culturally sensitive but take care not to inadvertently hand the initiative to the other party. Apply your sensitivity only to the extent that it will help you achieve your goal. For example, giving ‘goodwill’ gifts is common in the Far East, but increasingly rare in Western Europe. I prefer not to. I want a relentless focus on the negotiation issues and I do not want anything, however trivial, to distract from that. And this is my point. In business there is a universal language that is clearly understood in every corner of the globe – doing the deal. Successful negotiations are achieved by applying universal qualities, like courtesy, respect and personal warmth. So do not be overly worried if you have passed your business card with one hand or forgotten the shortbread biscuits. No serious businessperson will take offence when there is a deal to be done. ☛ Michael Phillips is managing partner of negotiation specialists Phillips Consulting
Central London and Cheltenham
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