Language in International Negotiations – Avoiding Embarrassment

A Deal Gone “South”

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.

  1. 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.

  2. A second issue is the failure of either or both parties to understand language preferences of the other. For example, the Japanese really do not want to negotiate in Japanese, because they find it quite irritating to hear their language mis-pronounced. The Chinese, on the other hand, are very uncomfortable speaking in a foreign language and will often demand that all negotiations occur in their language. The French and Latin Americans welcome having someone who uses their languages, even when mis-pronunciations and mis-use of words may occur. They are not irritated, but, rather, flattered, and cooperation is far more likely to be the “mark” of those negotiations.
  3. Other mis-understandings can occur when parties to upcoming negotiations decide to do a bit of research on the companies or organizations with whom they will be entering negotiations. They access the other parties’ websites in an effort to learn as much as possible about goals, missions, achievements, and finances. Along the way they discover a business blog, and begin to read a few of the posts. Because they tend to be informal and use lots of idioms and jargon. Wrong impressions can easily be made and taint the negotiations even before they begin.

Fixing Issues Before They Occur

Most problems of language can be prevented with some solid pre-planning.

  1. Find out or ask what the language preferences are of the parties with whom you will be negotiating. They will appreciate that you have taken the time to do this, and those negotiation will be on a very positive footing.
  2. Get the right interpreter, if one is needed. This individual should preferably be a native of the same country as those with whom you will be negotiating. And that native should have spent enough time in your country to understand the expressions to avoid, and the “loaded” words to avoid.
  3. Keep the language clear and simple. You may feel like a school child doing this, but it will prevent mis-understanding.
  4. Speak in small segments, especially if you are presenting information. And, as you present that information, use visuals as much as possible.
  5. When the negotiations have concluded, even if nothing final as come out of them yet, send a summary of the meetings to the other party. Keep it simple and use the same language that was preferred by the party in the negotiations.

Negotiating across cultures is difficult enough already. Don’t let language be a factor for negativity.

About the writer

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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