How Business Communications & Negotiations Differ Across Cultures: Rule- Vs. Relationship-Based

When you walk into a Western office, any Western office, you know that there are rules.

They are hardline rules, and they apply to everyone, across the board.

Western cultures (“Western” meaning the US and Europe) are rule-based cultures.

In countries where equality and justice for all are building blocks upon which society is built, this rigidity in rule-following makes perfect sense. Rules provide objective guidelines for companies, for government, for society as a whole.

Relationship-based cultures, on the other hand…

Relationship-Based Cultural Communication

Negotiation is the basis of relationship-based cultures. Even when it comes to “the rules.”

Managers in relationship-based cultures dictate these rules, and so the better the relationship you have with said managers, the better stacked you are at the negotiation table.

Anything and everything can be negotiated in such cultures.

This leaves a lot of room for ambiguity, something Westerners aren’t very comfortable with when it comes to the workplace.

Being as such, communicating within relationship-based cultures requires one to keep in mind a complex network of human relationships.

Rule-Based Cultural Communication

The company rules in a rule-based culture (like those in the West) are spelled out; they’re explicit. Unless a worker hopes to be fired, he follows the rules.

In fact, the rules laid out by Western managers are communicated directly, and they are often compiled in various written resources.

Most American companies have thousands of pages of rules, included in such documents as the company’s mission statement and vision, their HR handbooks, compliance handbooks, job descriptions and responsibilities, expense regulations, strategies, etc.

Written regulations, above all else, are spelled out for you. Personal preferences and favored relationships don’t apply (at least, they shouldn’t in theory).

This allows managers to communicate within a set of rules. They, therefore, often communicate directly, unambiguously, and concisely.

Negotiation

Considering each culture’s values and the way these values impact communication, negotiating tactics are extremely different across these two cultural types.

When negotiating in rule-based cultures, one often uses a direct approach, as the rules are objective, and disputes can subsequently be resolved using said rules.

In relationship-based cultures, where rules are not black and white, courtesy and saving face is the most important part of a negotiation.

A Western manager must go into a negotiation with the business partner of a relationship-based culture focused on building and maintaining a relationship, rather than with a strategic focus on “the rules.”

Americans and other Western cultures see business as business and not personal. There are rules, so negotiations can get tough, without partners walking away from the table with a broken personal relationship.

But with a relationship-based business partner, you can’t negotiate tough and then expect your partner to amiably join you in a round of golf.

This may be the norm in America, but not in China nor in Japan.

Instead, business and personal are intertwined, so the relationship must be cared for above all else.

Next week, we’ll talk about bridging this understanding.

Social Power Structures & Business Culture: Where are You in the Pecking Order?

Can you question authority in your company? Are you allowed to talk to your boss…look at him/her directly? If you’re on the low end of the pecking order, is your voice heard?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, you’re probably working in a Western company culture.

If you answered ‘no,’ you’re probably in the East.

We’ve been talking about the differences between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures for the past two weeks. Now, let’s take a peek at what happens in a business, East vs. West.

Social Power Structures

Social power structures are one of the most obvious contrasts between the East and the West.

The East centers around a hierarchical structure. Think of it as a building with no stairs. Only floors. Those in a higher position of power socialize at the top level, and those in a lower position of power socialize at the bottom. There is no crossing between the floors. There are social barriers. And, in fact, one might lose face if they mingled with a lower class.

The West, on the other hand, has an egalitarian structure. There are stairs and elevators in the building, and everyone from CEOs to janitors is welcome to cross between. Conversation is much looser and less formal. Inclusiveness is important. And you could argue that those who are able to talk to everyone on their level with grace, treating all with dignity and respect, would gain face doing so.

Social power structures are deeply ingrained in a culture. In the West, the homeless may be invisible to most, but they have a voice to others. In the East, they are invisible and voiceless to all.

Innovation & Business Culture

Ambition and initiative are also Western values which, if imitated in the East, would not go over so well.

For instance, say you’re a newbie at a company. You’ve got a brilliant new idea that will speed productivity sevenfold. You present it to upper management, without prompt, during a morning meeting.

Would you a) be rewarded, or b) be shunned?

In Western companies, this free-thinking initiative would be viewed positively. Ambition is, more often than not, a valued trait in the West.

In Eastern companies, a newbie trying to crack through the hierarchy would be seen as disobedient and, perhaps, a bit dangerous to upper management. This is due to the top-heavy concentration of power. Those in the lower ranks who try to “prove” themselves are putting a toe out of line, breaking the harmony. And they’d lose face because of it.

Cross-Cultural Environment

If you intend to work in a cross-cultural environment, knowing the values of the culture in which you’ll be working – especially the social power structures and business culture – will improve your chances of success.

Knowing these intricacies of culture will help you not to lose face before you even gain one.