by Ethan Dunwill
In 1992, President George Bush, Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, and several American businessmen traveled to Japan to discuss getting a better overall trade deal with that country. American car manufacturers were getting “killed” by Japanese auto imports, and Bush was under a lot of pressure to do something about it. During the meeting, the American contingent decided to be “tough,” to talk “tough,” and to show the Japanese leaders that America wanted changes in the current agreement. Iacocca came back and gave a speech at a luncheon shortly after that. He boasted about the fact that the Japanese now knew that America “meant business” and that they had better negotiate a better deal. He thought he had been successful.
Back in Japan, leaders had already quietly and adamantly determined that no new trade deal would be negotiated until the current one ran out. The reason? Many observers believed it was because the American language and style had completely violated the “rules” of language that the Japanese believe to be correct in negotiations. They considered the use of language and wording by the Americans to be rude, disrespectful, and even barbaric. In America, such language was considered totally appropriate for negotiations.
Common Language Mishaps in International Negotiations Three very common language issues can occur in negotiations by parties who either have no understanding of each other’s languages or have some fluency but not enough to grasp nuances, innuendoes, and connotations.
It’s so easy for native speakers to slip into idiomatic expressions, jargon, and other nuances that a foreigner, even if s/he has a command of the language, will mis-understand. Even within the confines of the United States, people who supposedly speak the same language have regional differences in language that make understanding difficult. Imagine this on an international scale! Listeners may become defensive and possibly hostile when they fail to understand what the other party is saying. Here is a simple and humorous example of such a situation:
In America, a very common expression is to “dodge a bullet.” This means that there was an impending business problem or crisis looming and that the executives were able to anticipate it and prevent it from occurring. It this expression is used with another party during a negotiation – a party who is somewhat fluent in English – that expression will be taken quite literally and interpreted to mean that the speaker was actually the subject of gun violence.
Most problems of language can be prevented with some solid pre-planning.
Negotiating across cultures is difficult enough already. Don’t let language be a factor for negativity.
Ethan Dunwill is startup owner, entrepreneur and blogger from Hong Kong, who helps other young businessmen to develop their business. You can connect with Ethan at Google+ or visit his blog at Medium.
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