In his article, “The Hidden Challenge of Cross-Border Negotiations,” (Sebenius, 2002, pp. 4-12), James Sebenius discusses how cultural differences and misunderstandings can impact, even derail, serious international negotiations. Beginning with understanding who is involved in potential deals, who has real power or authority, and what informal influences can make or break a deal, Sebenius makes it clear that rubbing one’s ankle the wrong way may stop months of negotiations dead in their tracks. Gestures, preconceptions, ritualistic etiquette, and silent implications of language through relationships, communication, time and space (according to Hall in Sebenius, 2002, 9) can alter the mood or determine if a negotiation will continue or not. Likewise, Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions (or differences) may indicate different views towards power, uncertainty, individualism, collectivism, harmony and assertiveness. While some cultures value some of these, others may promote just the opposite. Without awareness, misunderstandings may occur in international business deals despite the best of intentions.

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For example, Japan is a harmony-oriented culture in terms of business. Great preparation may result in agreement or decision before one even reaches the bargaining table. Status, personal connections, and university or corporate affiliations are very significant. Most negotiating teams are all male, with five members, one of whom is the symbolic head. Japanese negotiators are committed, persistent, credible, respected, pragmatic, and broad-minded. Business and culture in Japan are collectivist. There is great concern for protocol, but with entertaining integrated into negotiations (normally without wives). The Japanese work to build relationships, and trust and sincerity are of high significance to them. Japanese language is very complex and contains many verbal cues unfamiliar to foreign negotiators. They are confrontation and risk-averse. Although punctual, the Japanese take their time during meetings and decision-making. Many times, consensus decisions must be reached prior to formal negotiating. The Japanese rely on oral agreements, are not fond of long written agreements, and try to resolve issues through mutual discussion rather than litigation. Many Westerners do not understand Japanese concepts such as “saving face.” Overall, to succeed in negotiations in a country like Japan, Westerners should try to adapt to the less aggressive, more conciliatory and informal Japanese style of business, even though it does not conform with that prevalent in the United States.

  • Sebenius, J.K. (2002). “The Hidden Challenge of Cross-Border Negotiations.” Harvard Business Review, 4-12.