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.

How to Deal with Body Contact & Personal Space in Foreign Cultures

Do you bow, shake hands, or hug when you greet someone? Do you kiss on both cheeks?

How much space do you need to feel comfortable on the metro?

What is appropriate touching in your culture?

We’ve been talking about visual frameworks and the way different cultures perceive the world. Aside from vision, all four of our other senses have cultural sensitivities as well.

And touching is one of them.

Cross-Cultural Business Etiquette

When you live and work in a foreign culture, you might find your colleagues are comfortable with a different level of body contact and personal space.

One example: I was relocated to Madrid, Spain when I was a young manager. In Spain, you often find yourself negotiating over long lunches that wind down toward late afternoon.

I’d always know when the “real deal” was going down, because if my arm was resting on the table, my negotiating partner would place his hand on my arm. That gesture typically meant we were getting down to business.

To one who is accustomed to such a level of body contact, this action would be perceived as ordinary.

But for those from a culture with a different perception of touch, the body contact would probably be exceedingly uncomfortable and might even be viewed as inappropriate. Especially in a business meeting.

To Hug or Not to Hug

At around the same time I was being made uncomfortable in my meeting, my wife was taking a Spanish course alongside the wife of a Japanese diplomat.

Japanese culture views body contact of any kind with strangers or colleagues as intimate – even forbidden.

So, imagine her discomfort with the Spanish greeting of a kiss on both cheeks.

Not only do the Spanish kiss; they greet with effusive familiarity. And this woman had not only grown with the primary socialization of her culture, but was also raised in an aristocratic family, who reinforced those strict values and norms.

She explained to my wife how difficult it was to adapt. And it’s easy to understand why.

Do You Adapt?

Imagine you traveled to Zuma (a made-up country), where people – men and women – greeted you by rubbing their chest on you.

Remember, breasts are not viewed as a sexual part of the body in many cultures.

Knowing that, would you be comfortable with this greeting? And the real question: would you adapt to it?

The alternative is to stubbornly abide by your own cultural norms, awkwardly refusing to greet in this manner the rest of your days in this foreign country. But in doing so, you are saying to the locals: “I am the Monkey! I refuse to embrace your ways.”

And in making this choice, your new culture will not fully embrace you in return.