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How culture can affect communication

| 8/21/2009 12:00:00 AM | Gary Lachman

Negotiators in an international setting often find the process frustrating, as many times the two sides are speaking different languages in more ways than one.

Many times this problem manifests itself in the way that the issues are conceptualized. The problem with different processes of reasoning and comprehension is extremely interesting but rarely studied in the field of negotiation. A fundamental question is what effects do culture, and maybe even language, have on how people put ideas together. How can people come up with different conclusions than their counterparts when using the same facts and reasoning? In other words, could a line of reasoning that would be effective and persuasive in one country be totally ineffectivein another? Moreover, how does this affect modern global communication?

Historically, Americans have run into problems with French negotiators due to the logical thought process ingrained in Europeans known as Cartesian Logic. An extremely loose explanation of this process states that you reason from a starting point of something that is known, and then pay careful attention to the logical way one point leads to another, and then finally come to a conclusion for the matter at hand. The French also give higher priority than Americans to establishing the principles upon which the reasoning should be based. Once the reasoning process is underway, it becomes quite difficult to introduce new evidence or facts, because the French would feel that this new information, although potentially valuable, could derail everything that had been accomplished so far. This gives rise to a perception that the French are inflexible, and the concomitant requirement that any new information must be introduced very early in the game before it is too late. This process of logic is engrained into members of the French government and business leaders through their educational system. Historically, the French have gained a reputation for preferring clarity to truth, words to things, and rhetoric to science. Their communication is usually considered succinct and well managed.

Turkish people, on the other hand, are not naturally skilled at time management and planning. This means that we have a problem if there are many elements to a negotiation process or pressure to conclude the negotiation on a tight schedule. Interestingly, we tend to rush things when the going gets tough and succeed most of the time, or so we think. We think we are practical-minded, but this sometimes means that in trying to manage chaos and avoid more systematic and structured ways of thinking, we tend to follow the organizational hierarchy even if it sometimes means not honestly expressing one's opinion or not confronting the leader when we believe he or she is clearly wrong about something.

As far as Asian, Western European, and Turkish negotiators are concerned, the American’s directness, displays of emotion, and often-overbearing manner in selling a point, may signal a lack of self-control and therefore untrustworthiness. At the very least, it sends a message of insincerity, a threat to the more Asian measure of confidence. The challenge is to read the expressions and body language of your counterparts that mean yes or no, even though their words or gestures may say or imply otherwise.

While you can’t build your entire negotiation strategy in a foreign country around a study of the reasoning process of your counterparts, the subject deserves at least some reflection. One should also take note of the religious and political attitudes surrounding the time of your negotiation for clues about the local thought process. Read the local newspapers and then read them again, but this time, try reading between the lines. See if you can draw any conclusions about the way the local people think. Do you have the same emotional or intellectual reaction to current local events as they do?

Consequently, communication difficulties can be introduced when people try to speak English as a second language, or attempt to use it beyond their ability. Your listener may appear to be agreeing with something being said, but in reality they may just be being polite and have no clue what you are saying. When complicated ideas and intentions are at stake this problem is magnified. Furthermore, there are as many flavors of English as there are of ice cream at Haagen-Dazs and Baskin Robbins combined. Although English has become the virtual native language in countries such as India, Malaysia, and the Philippines, local usage over time has produced some significant differences in the meanings of words and phrases. These instances of inexact or incorrect meaning increase communication problems within the language.

The foregoing is intended to raise your level of awareness of the numerous factors that you must consider when approaching international negotiations. You must develop a personal negotiation style and strategy that is flexible enough to accommodate a variety of cultures and personalities. Before sitting down at the table, spend a little time acquainting yourself with the differences and similarities between yourself and the people on the other side. A little sensitivity and discretion will go a long way.

© Gary S. Lachman 2009

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