The Rice Field Analogy: Negotiation Tactics Across Cultures

Cultures have codes.

The past few weeks, we’ve discussed how to tap into these codes by using analogies constructively.

So can they be used to tap into negotiating with other cultures.

Innate Analogous Terms in Negotiation

Negotiation is a game.

In each culture, this game has different rules.

Strategy in negotiation requires understanding the game you’re playing.

Language used in negotiation is, of itself, analogous.

Negotiation is sometimes likened to going to war. Rules are minimal. Often, sports jargon is used, such as “fair play,” which is:

“in sport, the fact of playing according to the rules and not having an unfair advantage.”

Negotiations are something to be “won.”

These analogous terms used in negotiations naturally extend to cultures.

Framing a foreign culture’s negotiation tactics in the form of an analogy will help drive the correct strategy to “win.”

Cultural Analogies in Negotiation

In negotiation, Russians are “playing poker”; Germans are “playing chess.”

These are pretty straight forward analogies, easily understood by Westerners.

But what about the Chinese?

Chinese negotiations can be an enigma to foreigners.

You might feel mutual confidence, trust, and cooperation one day and, the very next, feel tricked into accepting something you hadn’t discussed.

The “pattern” is not like poker; it’s not like chess.

It’s variable and inconsistent.

To understand this seemingly random give-and-take, a friend provided me a succinct analogy: Chinese negotiations are like working in a rice field.

Rice is, without a doubt, an important part of Chinese culture.

It provides the people sustenance every single day from childhood to old age.

Cultivating this crop necessitates much more cooperation within a village than do crops in Europe or the U.S.

The rice field terraces in the countryside are flooded with a common irrigation system. The water irrigates one field to the next, and this requires that the entire village collectively working together.

Focusing on your land, alone, won’t work.

Instead, you must both hold your own and cooperate with others in equal parts.

This is what negotiating in China requires.

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View it as working together on these rice terraces: you must hold your own while using the same irrigation system as that which feeds your business partner’s field. And your business partner is doing the same.

In order to be successful, you must support and cooperate with your business partner while playing defensively and cleverly, seeking your own advantage and ensuring that your partner doesn’t exploit his.

When negotiating with Chinese partners, you aren’t playing poker, neither are you playing chess.

You’re working in a rice field together, both supporting and competing.

Chrysler & the PT Cruiser: A Cross-Cultural Case Study

A French office is like a royal court; a German office is a well-oiled machine.

As we’ve discussed over the past few weeks, analogies are simple mental models that can aid cross-cultural understanding.

While behavioral changes are inevitable when working a new culture, it can be impractical to completely alter your cultural identity. Analogies provide a rough blueprint so you can play by the rules.

They show you how another system works by transposing that system onto a concept that’s relatable to you.

Analogies aren’t perfect, but they do enable you to better comply with behavior in another culture which will make you more effective as a colleague or manager.

Instead of making decisions from the bias of your own cultural anchor, by understanding the structure of the workplace, you better understand its mechanics and are able to intuit decisions that more appropriately align.

If you don’t have a zookeeper to come up with an analogy for you – like an expat or local who’s worked in a similar cross-cultural capacity – observe the nuances of the culture and create your own simple but clear analogy to use as a mental model.

Here’s one example of how author and professor, Clotaire Rapaille, did just that.

The Culture Code

Having been exposed to numerous cultures in childhood, it was natural for Rapaille to dedicate his life to researching the differences of cultures around the world.

In doing so, he became a personal advisor for CEOs of top global companies and is on retainer for many Fortune 100 companies.

By applying basic analogies in his book, The Culture Code, his concise observations of other cultures make cross-cultural understanding more efficient.

Chrysler Case Study

One case study Rapaille presented in The Culture Code involved the development of Chrysler’s PT Cruiser.

Data from focus groups helped Chrysler analyze and understand the “code” of American car consumers.

What did they find?

  • A car means family: For Americans, the family car is made important during primary socialization. Therefore, the nostalgia of childhood and family are aspects entering into this code.
  • A car means freedom: As with most things American, owning a car in one’s youth means owning freedom in more ways than one. It was found that 80 percent of Americans have their first sexual experience in the backseat of a car.
  • A car means identity: There is a strong correlation between a person’s car and their identity in the U.S. In some ways, you are what you drive.

Considering this data, it’s clear that there’s a powerful emotional relationship between Americans and their cars.

As production planning for the PT Cruiser went into effect, German car manufacturer Daimler-Benz (Mercedes) took over Chrysler.

The German culture’s relationship with their vehicles is much different.

The legal driving age in Germany is 18, so the correlation between youthful freedom (and the nostalgia of a first sexual experience in a car) isn’t as common.

Moreover, German cars are ubiquitous with quality engineering. The focus is on advanced technology rather than on the powerful emotional relationship a consumer might have with their car.

Due to these differences in culture, the PT Cruiser project was not as successful as it could have been.

While the retro and individualistic design of the Cruiser pushed the right buttons for the American consumer, the German executives ignored this, instead focusing on the vehicle’s modest quality engineering.

They assumed the PT Cruiser would be a marketing disaster and consigned its production to a small plant in Mexico.

Because of this decision, supply couldn’t keep up with demand, when the car became a big hit with Americans.

The company could have sold much more in the first year had Daimler-Benz better understood and catered to the culture of the American car market.

This is one example where exploiting a cultural analogy (one shaped by family, freedom, and identity) could have guided decision-making and led a company to greater commercial success.

A New Frame of Interpretation: How Analogies Can Help Direct Cross-Cultural Behaviors

Meet Marie.

Marie is a German business consultant tasked with reorganizing a French company.

Excited with the prospect, Marie initially enjoyed her frequent trips to Paris and the directive with which she was tasked. But soon, she faced regular roadblocks that would make the fun project a chore.

The French company she was to reorganize was hierarchical and centralized. Despite this, Marie had difficulty identifying the appropriate decision-makers, as a number of people claimed to be in charge though they didn’t actually hold any power in moving the project forward.

Their interference threw rocks into the cogs of this project, slowing it to a standstill, and the delay resulted in even less support from the French team.

At this point, she wasn’t even able to secure a meeting with management or access the information required to complete her mission.

Marie had two choices: a) abandon the project, or b) find someone who could assist in her cross-cultural understanding of the way a stereotypical French company functions.

The Working Parts of a French Company

Marie was lucky enough to find her Zookeeper at the wedding party of a friend.

Using an analogy, this Zookeeper – a French manager who’d worked for over a decade in Germany – managed to crystalize Marie’s understanding of the hierarchy in the French office and the politics with which it functioned.

The Zookeeper told her, first of all, to abandon her German ideas of how an office should function. Unlike in Germany, companies in France don’t function like well-oiled machines.

Instead, he said, they are more like royal courts, in which the CEO reigns supreme. He is the king, and surrounding him, are his noblemen, knights, servants, etc. – all of whom vie for his attention.

They do this by constructing their own fiefdoms.

As Marie was someone sent in from the outside to manage a project, she should navigate this world like an earl.

As quoted from I am the Monkey, the Zookeeper advised:

“Be humble in the right moment. Be bold in the right moment. Be courteous when required. Be rude when needed. Build your political relationship and network, until you have the ear and favor of the king or one of his important ministers.”

By abandoning her expectations that a French office should function like a German one, Marie would be able to get the job done effectively in this foreign culture.

A Culture’s Office Hierarchy is Often a Microcosm of the Country’s Structural Macrocosm

France, itself, has a thousand-year-old history of strong monarchies. Further, its current politics is centered around a strong presidential state; so much so that President François Mitterand was deemed the “last French King.”

French thinking and the stereotypical hierarchies of French companies have been influenced by this historical structure and the way in which it functions.

In understanding this, Marie was able to adapt her behavior to a new frame of interpretation.

The idea that “French companies are like royal courts” created a firmer, almost visceral blueprint for not only what was expected from her, but for the methods by which she could achieve her goal in this setting that differed greatly from her own back in Germany.

This is one example of how analogies can aid a manager’s understanding of a new cross-cultural environment. We’ll be talking more about creating analogies in the coming weeks.