UK: A CLEAR-CUT CASE FOR COMPROMISE. - When negotiations between nations break down, it might be time for a compromise. But in some cultures, flexibility is seen as a virtue, in others a weakness that leads to an erosion of the negotiator's position.

by Richard Lewis.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

When negotiations between nations break down, it might be time for a compromise. But in some cultures, flexibility is seen as a virtue, in others a weakness that leads to an erosion of the negotiator's position.

Even what at first seem to be the most straightforward of negotiations can run into dispute or deadlock. When such situations occur between nationals of one culture the momentum can usually be regained through the use of a well-tried mechanism. Deadlocks can be broken, for instance, by a change of negotiators, change of venue, an adjournment of the session or a repackaging of the deal. Arab teams will take a recess for prayer and come back with a more conciliatory stance; Japanese delegations will bring in senior executives to 'see what the problem is'; Swedish opponents will go out drinking together; and Finns will retire to the sauna.

Of course, such options are not always available in international negotiations. Moreover, cultural difference can often mean that the nature of the deadlock is misconstrued by both parties. The mechanism classically favoured by Anglo-Saxons in such circumstances is that of compromise - a form at which the British, with their supposedly innate sense of fair play, believe themselves to excel. The Scandinavians are very 'British' in this respect, while the American willingness to compromise is seen in their frequent recourse to horse-trading and give-and-take tactics.

Yet in any situation, intelligent, meaningful compromise is only possible when one side is able to see how the other sets out its priorities and understands how culturally-affected notions of dignity, conciliation and reasonableness come into play. In some cultures, for example, flexibility in negotiation is seen as a virtue. In others it is regarded as a weakness that inevitably leads to an erosion of the negotiator's position. An English dictionary typically defines 'compromise' as the 'settlement of a dispute by concessions on both or all sides'. A second definition reads 'an exposure of one's good name or reputation'. Clearly, one has to tread carefully.

In some countries, accordingly, compromise is held in low esteem. To the French, for example, 'give and take' is simply an Anglo-Saxon euphemism for 'wheel and deal', which they see as an inelegant tactic for chiselling away at their carefully-constructed logic. 'Yes. Let's be reasonable,' they say. 'But what is irrational in what we have already said?' It is primarily this attitude that has led to the common perception of the French as obstinate negotiators. In reality, the French see no reason to compromise if their well-formulated argument stands undefeated.

For the Japanese, compromise is a departure from the company-backed consensus; woe betide the Japanese negotiator who concedes a point without authority. Here, adjournment is the least that he must ask for. The result is often long telephone calls back to superiors in search of directives. Again, the common assumption is that Japanese negotiators are unable to make decisions. Rather, the Japanese see meetings as an occasion for presenting previously ratified decisions, not changing them.

Among the Latins, attitudes towards compromise vary. The Italians, though they respect logic almost as much as the French, pride themselves on flexibility. They are closely followed by the Portuguese who, in their long history of trading with the British, are quite familiar with Anglo-Saxon habits. The Spanish and South Americans, however, are horses of another colour. The Spaniard's obsession with dignity makes it hard for him to climb down without good reason. South Americans, similarly, see compromise as a threat to their 'pundonor' (literally, 'position of honour'). This is particularly acute among Argentinians, Mexicans and Panamanians, who typically display obstinacy in conceding even the slightest point - especially to the 'arrogant, insensitive Americans', whose position of power and dominance they have long resented.

If compromise may be defined as the means of finding a middle course then, appropriately, both the Japanese and Chinese make good use of 'go-betweens'. This is less acceptable, however, to Westerners who prefer more direct contact - even confrontation - to seek clarity. Confrontation is anathema to Orientals and most Latins and typically disliked by the British and Swedish. Only Germans ('the truth is the truth'), Finns, Americans and Australians might rank directness, bluntness and honesty above subtle diplomacy in business discussions. Of course, when it comes to negotiation, honesty, despite the advice of the maxim, is not always the best policy.

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