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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Reading the Body Language in International Negotiations

But the researchers also noted some profound differences. For instance, when projecting negativity, Chinese participants usually leaned back and made eye contact frequently, whereas Canadians averted their gaze. And to communicate dominance, Canadians were more likely to sit straight up; the Chinese used that posture to show submissiveness.

The researchers noted that prior studies associated eye contact exclusively with positive emotions and affectionate engagement. Leaning back has traditionally been linked to a relaxed approach. But those studies, the authors say, were based on the behavior of Western Europeans and didn’t take into account the differences in East Asian cultures.

“We can easily see a possible misinterpretation in intercultural negotiation, where if a Chinese negotiator displays [a] high level of eye contact and leans back, this may be interpreted as liking and positive affect by a Canadian negotiator, when it actually signals dislike,” the authors write.

Similarly, North American negotiators could misinterpret the erect back posture of an Eastern counterpart as unfriendly or control-seeking when it is meant to convey submissiveness.

Bottom Line:
Nonverbal cues are seen as key indicators of a person’s true feelings. But some cues mean different things in different cultures — and misunderstandings can undermine international business negotiations. Executives who bring an awareness of these differences to the table have a better chance of achieving their goals.

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