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Reading the Body Language in International Negotiations

Nonverbal cues can be misunderstood, to a deal maker’s detriment.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Title: Nonverbal Cues Associated with Negotiation “Styles” across Cultures

Authors: Zhaleh Semnani-Azad (University of Waterloo) and Wendi L. Adair (University of Waterloo)

Publisher: Presented at the 2011 International Association for Conflict Management Conference, Istanbul, organized by the University of Michigan Ross School of Business

Date Published: June 2011

In international negotiations, what you say is sometimes less important than your body language or facial expressions, according to this paper. Previous studies have explored how people from different cultures react differently to idioms and language-specific business jargon. This study examines how nonverbal communication differs across cultures, and how easy it is to misinterpret.

A 2008 study found that as much as 65 percent of social meaning is conveyed through nonverbal means, and other research has shown that these signals and cues — which are assumed by many people to be “automatic” and representative of true feelings — are often trusted over spoken words. The problem is that such signals can mean different things in different cultures and thus can be incorrectly understood, with unintended and sometimes disastrous results. This paper says that executives who learn how to “read” what the other side is really saying with body signals — and who are sensitive to how their own signals might be perceived — will be a step ahead in negotiating international deals.

This study involved 48 Chinese students (all Mandarin-speaking and born in mainland China) and 57 Canadian students (all born in Canada), the two groups serving as proxies, respectively, for Eastern and Western cultures. The students were asked to play roles in a scenario that cast a baker and a liquor store owner in negotiations over sharing space in a new market. The two parties had to agree on such issues as hiring policies, employee training costs, and an advertising budget.

The roles of the baker and liquor store owner were randomly assigned to the Chinese and Canadian participants. The participants didn’t negotiate with each other but rather with a research assistant who was trained to act in a neutral manner — betraying no emotions, having a normal posture, and remaining noncommittal about the issues under discussion. The participants were always paired with research assistants from their culture who spoke their language.

Before the 15-minute negotiating sessions began, the participants were “primed” by the researchers to adopt a certain stance and attitude. They were prepped to have a dominant or submissive negotiating style and a positive or negative view of their counterpart. For example, when participants were instructed to approach the meeting in a dominant way, they were given descriptions of their roles that included key words such as “determined,” “authoritative,” “controlling,” and “assertive.” To shape their view of the person across the table, they were given detailed information about that party’s financial status and standing in the community. The participants were also instructed to reflect on their role and negotiation style for 20 minutes before the meeting started.

The researchers videotaped the negotiations to examine six categories of behavior: posture, head movement, hand movement, eye gaze, facial expression, and how often the participant fell silent or kept talking. The videotapes were studied by behavioral analysts to distinguish all the body movements — from leaning back to avoiding the other person’s gaze.

The results indicated that some nonverbal cues were used by both groups to convey the same meaning. Smiling, leaning forward, and gesturing while talking were employed by both the Chinese and Canadians when trying to convey a positive and more submissive approach, and shaking the head and frowning were displayed by both to show the opposite. In attempting to project dominance, both groups were more likely to try to control the room through negative signals than positive ones.

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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