You're arranging a
business deal, and the person you're negotiating with maintains eye
contact, leans back slightly, and looks relaxed. Things are going pretty
well, right? Not necessarily.
A study by researchers at the University of Waterloo
finds that people from different cultures differ in their
interpretation of nonverbal communication. A 2008 study suggested that
as much as 65 percent of social meaning is conveyed nonverbally, so
misreading body language and nonverbal cues can cause major disruptions
in international diplomacy and business.
Zhaleh Semnani-Azad and Wendi L. Adair
asked 105 male graduate students to participate in a negotiation
scenario in which a baker and liquor store owner, who were to share
space in a new market, had to agree on such issues as hiring policies,
employee training costs and an advertising budget. The participants were
48 Mandarin speaking students born in China and 56 native Canadians.
They were randomly assigned to be baker or liquor store owner and they
negotiated with a person of their own culture who was, unbeknownst to
them, a research assistant trained to behave in neural and noncommittal
ways. Their surprising results are described in a recent issue of Strategy+Business. Their paper, available here,
was presented at the 2011 International Association for Conflict
Management Conference, Istanbul, organized by the University of Michigan
Ross School of Business.
researchers found both groups conveyed a positive attitude by smiling,
leaning forward and gesturing as they spoke. But there were profound
differences in the way Chinese and Canadian participants interpreted eye
contact, posture, bodily position, and silences. When Chinese
participants leaned back and made frequent eye contact, they were
usually projecting dislike and negativity. Canadians doing the same
things were likely to be feeling positive. Canadians who felt negative
were likely to avert their gaze from their negotiating partner. For the
Chinese, a lowered gaze was more likely to indicate respect. Among the
Chinese participants, an erect posture tended to convey submissiveness.
So Canadians, who were likely to communicate dominance by sitting very
straight, could interpret an erect posture among Chinese as aggressive
or unfriendly. Researchers also reported earlier studies showing Asian
negotiators often use silence in persuasion, or polite rejection,
whereas silence makes North American negotiators uncomfortable and
A paper on international negotiation styles
suggests that like Americans, Mexicans want frequent eye contact, but
they do not like loud or boisterous speech, and ambiguous statements may
be their polite way of saying "no." Gestures and symbols have different
meanings, too. The American OK sign of forefinger and thumb forming a
circle, the paper says, has an obscene meaning in Mexico. And as
American troops learned, and a Slate article by Brendan Koerner reports, the traditional American thumbs up sign for approval is a really crass insult in Iraq and several other countries.
negotiators and travelers warn against over-generalizing and
unproductive stereotypes. But understanding and respect are vital. The
Canadian government established the Centre for Cultural Learning
in 1969 to provide intercultural and international training services
for government agencies, NGOs, and private sector enterprises with
international involvement. The site has links to informative websites
about virtually every country in the world, and its Country Insight feature leads visitors to valuable summaries of cultural, economic and political information about countries and regions all over the world.