Working Paper | HBS Working Paper Series | 2009

Assess, Don't Assume, Part I: Etiquette and National Culture in Negotiation

by James K. Sebenius


When facing a cross-border negotiation, the standard preparatory assessments -- of the parties, their interests, their no-deal options, opportunities for and barriers to creating and claiming value, the most promising sequence and process design, etc. -- should be informed and modified by two classes of potentially relevant cross-border factors, the general and the negotiation-specific. Drawing on considerable literature in cross-border and cross-cultural negotiation, this paper develops the first two levels of a four-level prescriptive framework for effectively carrying out such assessments: 1. Common expectations for surface behavior: etiquette, protocol, and deportment. A surface-level assessment informs one about local expectations concerning greetings, business cards, gift-giving, dress, punctuality, body language, table manners, and so forth. 2. Deeper cultural characteristics and their implications for the negotiation process itself. Below the surface are characteristics such as whether a culture is focused on the individual or the collective, the nature and importance of relationships, how personal space and the role of time are viewed, the extent to which authority and hierarchy are accepted, how ambiguity and risk are regarded, and so on. Extending this assessment to expectations that are more specific to the negotiation process itself yields several questions: Is there a view that negotiation is a collaborative process aimed at mutual advantage or a competitive battle? Should one focus on specific issues early on or is there a lengthy process of relationship building first? Is the process formal or informal? Is communication direct or indirect? Are agreements constructed from general principles "down" or from specific provisions "up?" And so on. The bulk of this essay develops these two points but with some strong caveats against stereotyping, overemphasizing national culture, falling prey to potent psychological biases in cross-cultural perception, as well as potentially adapting "past" one's counterpart. [A close companion paper -- "Assess, Don't Assume, Part II: Decision Making, Governance, and Political Economy in Negotiation" -- elaborates the importance to effective negotiating strategy and tactics of incorporating two less well-studied factors beyond etiquette and deeper cultural characteristics: 3) systematic cross-border differences in decision making, governance, and 4) the broader economic and political context for negotiation as well as salient "comparable" deals.

Keywords: Cross-Cultural and Cross-Border Issues; Negotiation Process; Societal Protocols; Competitive Advantage; Cooperation;


Sebenius, James K. "Assess, Don't Assume, Part I: Etiquette and National Culture in Negotiation." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 10-048, December 2009.