Understanding Cultural Distance

Friday, July 18, 2014, by Eliane Karsaklian

cultural distanceAs international negotiators, or even as international travelers, we don’t all have the same preferences in terms of which countries we prefer to work in or visit. Some cultures are easier for us to adjust to while others require much more effort. The reason for this is “cultural distance.”

Cultural distance is the gap between your culture and other cultures. The bigger the gap, the bigger the distance and, thus, the bigger the effort you need to make in order to adust. It also requires more effort to find common ground between parties in a negotiation, since they often don’t share similar values and behaviors.

Consider the following situation: You accompany a French client on a one-week negotiation in Chicago. You think that it will be easy, because France and the United States are developed Western countries and so the cultural distance must not be significant. Throughout the week, however, you realize that you are having some trouble getting your French client to work productively with the Americans. They don’t manage time the same way. They use agendas differently, and their mindsets are definitely not the same.

However, everything goes reasonably well until the closing gala dinner. The day before, your French client is invited to sit at the table of honor. He is flattered and looks forward to the event. The next evening, however, by the end of the pre-dinner drinks, he tells you that he expects someone to accompany him to his table. You explain that he is expected to go to the table at the scheduled time by himself, as he has accepted the first invitation. After a while, when everyone is already seated, he joins you at your table, complaining about Americans and how ‘they don’t know how to look after their guests’. On their side, the Americans who were waiting for the Frenchman at the other table have their stereotypes confirmed about the French being unreliable and unpredictable because this Frenchman did something different from what he said.

A word of caution: Cultures are never that close. We should always think about what can be different to avoid this type of situation.

To learn more, read The Intelligent International Negotiator – Business Expert Press.

eliane karsaklian book cover