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Conflict Research Consortium BOOK SUMMARY

Negotiating Across Cultures: Communication Obstacles in International Diplomacy


Raymond Cohen


Raymond Cohen, Negotiating Across Cultures: Communication Obstacles in International Diplomacy, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1991)

This book summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium.

Cohen argues that cross-cultural differences have significant effects on diplomatic negotiations. Failure to understand and appreciate theses differences can have serious consequences for negotiations. In this text Cohen explores the role cultural differences play in shaping the content, process, and style of negotiations.

Cultural Differences

"Diplomatic negotiation consists of a process of communication between states seeking to arrive at a mutually acceptable outcome on some issue of shared concern."[p. 7] This process of communication can be profoundly affected by differing cultural conventions, norms, meanings, assumptions, ideals and perceptions. The problems of inter-cultural communication have received increased attention in recent years, and Cohen reviews briefly some of the main theorists working in this field. Cohen's own approach is to combine these theoretical frameworks with analyses of case studies, focusing particularly on cases of negotiation between Western and non-Western states.

Cohen rejects the notion that a single international diplomatic culture has developed, which makes diplomats' native cultures largely irrelevant. He finds that seasoned diplomats reports that cultural differences have a significant impact. Theoretic studies show that culture plays a large role in shaping the individuals' character. This constitutive impact of culture cannot be erased by mere exposure to other cultures.

Cohen draws primarily on Lorand Szalay's theory of inter-cultural communication. Szalay begins by distinguishing between the form and content of a message. The form of the message serves to encode its meaning. Understanding a message is a matter of the receiver correctly decoding it, so that the receiver's intention matches the sender's meaning. Szalay says, "Since the encoder and the decoder are two separate individuals their reactions are likely to be similar only to the extent that they share experiences, that they have similar frames of reference. The more different they are, the less isomorphism there will be between encoded and decoded content."[p. 20] Cultural similarity provides a shared frame of reference, while individuals from divergent cultures are more likely to have different experiences and frames of reference. Cohen draws on this model to identify several very basic, very general differences between cultures. First is the contrast between cultures with an individualistic ethos and cultures which emphasize interdependence and collective identity. In collectivist cultures, communication tends to be very context-sensitive. Communication forms emphasize politeness, relationship-building, tact, and even indirectness. Individualistic cultures de-emphasize the communication context and personal relationships. Communication is direct and explicit, with little patience for rhetoric, allusion, or complex etiquette.

Another important contrast is between cultures with polychronic and monochronic concepts of time. Monochronic cultures tend to regiment time. Schedules and timetables are given great weight. Haste is a virtue. Such cultures are future-oriented; the past is important only insofar as it affects present and future plans. Polychronic culture take a more leisurely view of time. Time moves in greater and lesser cycles, independent of human wants. Patience and steadiness are virtues. Polychronic cultures tend to have a richer sense of the past; past events live on in the present. Cohen calls collectivist, polychronic cultures high-context cultures. Individualistic, monochronic cultures are then low-context.

Cohen suggests that supposedly universal models of negotiation may instead reflect an individualistic, monochronic culture. Models which take an instrumental approach to negotiation, which emphasize separating people from issues, and which prioritize creating efficient, maximally beneficial outcomes, may seem foreign to cultures that place primary value in human relationships and have a less urgent sense of time. Not every issue is negotiable. Which issues are considered to be open to negotiation and which are not often depends upon cultural factors. National pride and the necessity of equal treatment are non-negotiable issues for most countries. Often a reaffirmation of national pride or status is required in order to bring a nation into negotiations. Collectivist cultures may be especially sensitive to perceived slights or insults.

Most cultures will be extremely reluctant to negotiate sovereignty issues. However different cultures focus their need for sovereignty in different areas. Often past events come to symbolize wounded national pride. Being associated with such events can provoke stiff resistance. Many nations' senses of sovereignty rest in maintaining their cultural traditions. States which were once under colonial rule are often sensitive to anything reminiscent of colonialism. The presence of foreign military, for example, may be a non-negotiable issue to such states. North American and Northern European nations tend to treat matters of human rights as non-negotiable issues. Many of the other nations do not attach such basic importance to human rights. The list of human rights set forth in the UN Declaration of Human Rights has been criticized as reflecting the individualistic cultural bias of the West. Some people have argued that these individualistic rights are less applicable or appropriate to collectivist cultures.

Stages of Negotiation

Cohen explores the effects of cultural differences in the four different phases of the negotiation process. The phases Cohen identifies are the preparation phase, and the beginning, middle and end phases of negotiations. Cohen notes that the various ways in which the negotiation process is described and divided are themselves culturally loaded. Cohen's divisions are made simply for the sake of convenience, and are not meant to refer to necessarily distinct stages.

For high-contrast negotiators, the preparatory stage focuses on building personal relationships with the other side. Accustomed to acting within a rich network of interdependent relations, high-context negotiators start by attempting to build such a network with the opponent. Low-context cultures see issues as separable from personal relations, and prefer to act in relatively anonymous ways. High-context cultures also tend to take a long term view, focusing on cultivating and improving the parties' relationship. Low-context cultures tend to have a more short term focus on the issue at hand.

Maintaining face (reputation or honor) is generally more important in high-context cultures than in low-context. Because of the importance of maintaining face, high-context negotiators generally try to minimize uncertainty and to prevent crises, confrontations, and surprises. Being caught by surprise is likely to result in a loss of face for someone. Similarly someone is likely to lose in a confrontation, with the attending loss of face. Low-context cultures are less concerned with issues of face, and so are more open to uncertainty, competition and confrontation. The beginning phase of negotiations can be complicated by differences between hierarchical and egalitarian cultures. Egalitarian cultures assume negotiations will proceed by the parties taking turns presenting their concerns, and reciprocating initiatives in kind. Low- context negotiators tend to open negotiations by first setting forth their position, assuming that the other side will respond by stating their opposing position. Low-context cultures view declaring a opening position to be risky and confrontational. The opening positions reveal the party's interests. When this statement of positions is not reciprocated it gives the reticent party an advantage. Hierarchical cultures may view the parties' relationship as that of supplicant to superior, and so be "quite happy to demand one-sided concessions in payment of a supposed moral debt or as the duty of the stronger party."[p. 84]. Cultures also differ in their preference for agreement on specifics or on general principles. Low-context negotiators are likely to rely on the factual-inductive mode of persuasion, which focuses on examining the facts at hand and crafting a conclusion to fit those facts. High context negotiators may prefer the axiomatic-deductive mode of persuasion, which seeks agreement on general principles and then applies those principles to the case at hand.

Different cultures may have different expectations as to what should occur during the middle phase of negotiations, and how much time this phase should take. Low context cultures such as the U.S. expect that the middle phase will be a period of bargaining, a process of trade-offs and concessions in which the parties gradually converge on a shared position. Many high context cultures see such a process of "haggling" as appropriate to price negotiations, but inappropriate to matters of principle. High status individuals do not lower themselves to haggle over small points. Polychronic cultures are usually willing to draw out the middle phase. Monochronic cultures are usually in more of a hurry to reach an agreement. Monochronic cultures are often at some disadvantage when negotiating with polychronic cultures, since their greater sense of urgency will prompt them to make greater concessions in order to close the deal quickly.

Different cultural approaches to authority can also complicate the middle phase. Collectivist cultures tend to base authority relations on the father-child model. Authority is centralized, hierarchical, and tends to be absolute. Individualist cultures tend to disperse power and authority, and to encourage questions and even challenges to authority. The American system of governmental checks and balances is typical of a individualist culture. Difficulties have often arisen as negotiators from collectivist cultures over-estimate the power and domestic authority of the U.S. President. Japan is an anomaly among collectivist cultures, in that political decision-making relies on consensus.

Different cultures favor different means of negotiation and persuasion. The emphasis on personal relationships and group harmony in high context cultures means that persuasion focuses on cultivating a close, trusting relationship with the other side. High context cultures are generally uncomfortable with overt aggression, confrontation, and adversarial styles of interaction. Low context cultures find facts and reasoned arguments to be more persuasive, and tend to favor a more direct, explicit and even aggressive style of communication.

Low context cultures prefer direct communication, while high context cultures are generally more indirect, relying on strong personal relationships to support mutual understandings. Cohen notes that "a striking feature of collectivistic, high context speakers...is their dislike of the negative; a direct contradiction is invariably avoided."[p. 113] When pressed for a direct answer, high context negotiators may resort to expressions of polite agreement which are without substance. Or they may offer ambiguous answers. Misunderstandings often result from such politeness being mistaken for substantive agreement. Nonverbal communication also varies widely from culture to culture, as does the acceptability of displays of emotion. High context cultures employ, and may be particularly moved by, symbolic gestures.

As noted above, monochronic cultures, with their perpetual sense of urgency, tend to rush the end phase of negotiations. In particular, low context negotiators tend to overlook the importance of presenting face-saving alternatives when high context parties are involved. For a proposal to be acceptable in a high context culture, it must not only meet the parties material interests, it must also be presented in such a way as to preserve the prestige and status of each party. High context negotiators may reject even materially favorable proposals if agreeing would involve a significant loss of face. Conversely, symbolic gains may make a materially unfavorable proposal acceptable. One way to save face is to rely on informal, unwritten agreements, since these can be repudiated should they become too embarrassing. This however runs counter to the low context preference for specific, explicit, written agreements.


Cohen concludes his study with the following general suggestions for low context negotiators when facing high context cultures. Study the history and language of the other culture. Begin to cultivate a warm personal relationship with the other side's negotiators even before negotiations start. Do not assume the other side interprets things in the same way that you do. Be alert and sensitive to nonverbal or indirect communication, and be aware of your own nonverbal cues. Be aware of and respect the importance of maintaining face. Fit your negotiating strategy to the opponent's cultural needs, haggling when appropriate or starting from general principles. Compromising in the face of an opponent's intransigence may simply confuse the situation, since their stubbornness is often calculated to make you reveal your bottom line. Low context negotiators must cultivate patience. Finally, agreements must be presented in a form which preserves face all around.

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