Language Is Key In International Negotiations

March 29, 2015


For those of you who engage in international business, everyone knows that international negotiations are much more complex than domestic negotiations by the fact they  involve different languages, different cultures and perhaps different views of the world.  Culture will determine how companies or organizations and their negotiators look at or perceive negotiations.  Certain cultures or societies will have a greater risk tolerance than other groups or countries.  Some cultures will look at the future differently, or will value compromise differently. Some societies promote problem solving while others promote individualistic goals with little concern for the other side.  Negotiating with other countries or cultures can lead to a clash of values, disagreements over the meaning of words, confusion over inaction or action, and of course failed negotiations.  That is why not only communications across culture is difficult but why language itself is key in international communications.  Having a good grasp of your counterpart's langauge may determine success or failure.    Knowledge of one’s counterpart or customer’s language in an international setting is very important for many reasons. For example, it helps avoid the potential for miscommunication, confusion and misunderstanding of issues.

  1. The problem is that some societies—like the US think that  language is not important in business.  Everyone speaks English—why learn another language?  Due to geography- people in the US unlike Europe or Asia do not have to learn another language.
  2. Another issue is that in international negotiations language has a direct impact on intercultural business communications.  As language is a major variable in communications it is intertwined with culture.
  3. Language and culture are so intertwined that language without understanding  the cultural implications may cause confusion .   Remember, language reflects the environment where people live. It reflects social issues as well as  societal values.  It is an extension of culture.
  4. In an international setting, understanding the culture of your counterpart becomes important.  If you understand the culture of someone you negotiate with you have a better chance of succeeding.  Understanding a different culture means you will communicate more effectively than if you had no idea as to the culture of the person sitting across the table form you.
  5. If you understand your counterpart’s language you  may also have insight into his culture.  If you do not know the language it is important to have someone on your team that does or that you have an interpreter.
  6. If you are to negotiate effectively with people from different cultures and languages, don’t just think English will get you by.

For example,

I once was involved with negotiations between a Korean company, a Japanese company and a US company.  The US company had come to Korea to negotiate a proposed joint venture.  The Japanese company was a primary supplier/ vendor that was going to license technology to the joint venture.

The US company rep came without a translator thinking negotiations would be in English. The Korean and Japanese businessmen could both speak Korean, Japanese and English. Though formal negotiations were in English- the  informal negotiations at dinner were not- but in Korean/Japanese.  The US company rep has no clue on what was being negotiated as he was not prepared to handle Korean nor Japanese. Who had better negotiations?

Remember- just becasue your counterpart may understand your langauge and even negotiate formally in your langauge doesnt mean and the end of the day that the nuances of the deal are adequaltey reflected in your term sheet or that your countrparts are not negoiating in their own language at a certain level.

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