Written by Christina Keßler

Today, foreign services are increasingly aware of the potential pitfalls cross-cultural dissonance presents. Cultural differences and their impacts on negotiation styles and techniques have become integral parts of the academic discourse on diplomacy and negotiation. In foreign services, diplomats are trained to be conscious of potential misunderstandings and distinctive national styles of negotiation. In the private sector, multinational companies instruct their human resources departments to coach employees in order to be more sensitive towards cultural differences when working with business partners. While this trend of heightened awareness for the impact of cultural differences on working relationships is certainly a positive development, it also holds the risk of oversimplification and stereotyping. The implications of cultural differences on negotiations are complex and cannot be generalized. In current literature on negotiations and culture, scholars oftentimes only stress the importance of potential cultural dissonances between opposing delegations. Delegations are often assumed to be culturally homogenous entities. Why is this view a gross oversimplification of the complex realities of international diplomacy?

This paper argues that in an increasingly interdependent world, one witnesses a trend of cultural clashes not only between, but within delegations. In order to meet the challenges presented by either negotiating with or being part of a culturally heterogeneous delegation, one first must  be conscious of such differences. The aim of this research is to problematize the current conceptualization of delegations as culturally homogeneous entities and herewith add to scholarly understanding of the role of culture in diplomacy. This paper will firstly elaborate on the way in which cultural differences influence negotiations in general. In the following, this paper will build on this conceptual framework and argue that more nuance is needed to adequately address the challenges arising from cultural differences in modern-day diplomacy in which delegations are not necessarily culturally homogenous. It will do so by presenting examples of delegations which are culturally diverse and argue that the appearance of such delegations is a trend which will be continued in the following years.  Finally we can conclude with a call for heightened awareness for cultural differences and a call for nuance when examining individual national styles. 

As the focus of international diplomacy has shifted away from an exclusively Western-centric model, literature has started to examine the potential implications of cultural dissonance on negotiations and highlighted the importance of being aware of cultural differences (Cohen, 2001). Hofstede, who conceptualized cultural differences in several dimensions, defines culture as “the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one group or society from those of another” (1984, p. 82). According to Hofstede’s seminal research, one can approximate the essential differences between various cultures by a comparison of four underlying value dimensions: Individualism versus Collectivism, Large versus Small Power Distance, Strong versus Weak Uncertainty Avoidance, and Masculinity versus Femininity. In the most recent version of the model, two additional factors have been added (Long Term versus Short Term Orientation and Indulgence versus Restraint), thus resulting in a model comprising of six dimensions (“Comparing countries”, n.d.). Highlighting the existing cultural disparities between different countries is an integral part of modern diplomacy studies, as these differences come with significant implications for negotiation practices. Cohen highlights several ways in which cross-cultural dissonance presents potential pitfalls for negotiations: linguistic dissonance, temporal discontinuities and the differences between high context and low context communication are only a few of the examples in which cultural differences can lead to misreadings and miscommunication (Cohen, 2001). According to Cohen, it must be an essential part of negotiation training “to incorporate both a general sensitivity to cross-cultural differences and detailed coaching in individual national styles.” (2001, p. 479).

While existing literature on diplomacy and negotiations rightfully highlights the implications of cultural differences for modern-day negotiations for both diplomats and actors from the private sector, it limits itself in one crucial aspect. Scholars almost exclusively focus on the cultural differences between different negotiating parties. This paper argues that it is increasingly important to take notice of existing cultural differences not only between, but also within negotiating parties. In the following, several examples for negotiating parties in which cross-cultural differences are to be expected will be given. While culturally diverse negotiating parties are by no means a new phenomenon, this paper argues that due to several shifts in the international diplomatic scene we currently witness a trend of more cultural diversity within delegations, a trend which must be adequately addressed. Reasons for this include for example shifts towards multilateral negotiations, the increasing involvement of a variety of actors in negotiations and the importance of regional groups such as the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). 

Traditionally, each diplomatic service has represented one respective country on the international stage of diplomacy. Research on the topic of culture in diplomacy has therefore oftentimes assumed that members of a delegation necessarily share national, linguistic and cultural background. This view has become outdated, as the examples of the EEAS and ASEAN show.

In 2010 the world witnessed the establishment of an entirely new diplomatic service: the European External Action Service (EEAS), the world’s first supranational diplomatic service (Cross, 2011) which aims to represent supranational policy areas of the European Commission as well as to embody a common EU foreign policy (Cross, 2011). Diplomatic staff of the EEAS is typically recruited from three different institutions (the European Commission, the Council Secretariat, and the national diplomatic services of EU member states) comprising mainly of citizens of the 28 EU member states (Cross, 2011). 

Assuming a shared cultural background for diplomats from 28 countries which have distinct languages and cultures is an oversimplification. Treating cultural differences between EU member states and EU diplomats with the awareness due and staying conscious of potential miscommunication rooted in cultural dissonance is not only advisable for any potential negotiation partner of the EEAS, but also for EEAS diplomatic staff. Put simply: just because one is sitting at the same side of the table does not always mean one is on the same page. Especially since EEAS diplomatic staff is socialized in very different institutions (despite various calls for such, there is now common training facility of EEAS diplomats), one must be aware of potential cultural clashes within the organisation (Juncos & Pomorska, 2014). 

While the EEAS might be the first supranational diplomatic service, the EU certainly is not the only regional association of countries which increasingly appears as a unit on the international diplomatic stage. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formally established in 1967 and comprises countries of the Southeast Asia region such as for example Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore (Acharya, 1997). ASEAN as an organisation stresses the similarities between the different countries which it is made up of, and there is no doubt such similarities exist. However, claiming a collective identity of the region would be overgeneralization (Acharya, 1997). Indeed, there might be similarities, but there are also significant ways in which the ASEAN countries differ from each other: “The Asia-Pacific nations are remarkably different in terms of their political systems, cultural heritage and historical experience. Their economies were characterized by different degrees of openness to the global capitalist economy, while their outlook on national economic development was informed by a wide range of political and ideological perspectives.” (Acharya, 1997, p. 322). There is not simply one single ASEAN culture. 

A prime example for a setting in which awareness for national and cultural differences not only between, but also within negotiating parties is due, are the interregional negotiations on a free trade agreement between the EU and ASEAN. Started in 2007, the interregional negotiations failed two years later (Meissner, 2015). However, the prospects of interregional negotiations are still being explored and it is very much possible that we might see more interregional negotiations in future years (European Commission Directorate-General for Trade, n.d.).

However, problems arising with cultural differences within delegations do not only concern negotiations involving regional actors. Literature often assumes that within a country there is only one set way of doing things, one unified culture. This is a gross oversimplification. Exemplar for this is the so-called Chinese way of negotiating. It is often implied there exists a unified way of conducting negotiations in China, which is a vast country with significant internal cultural differences.  Lei examines regional differences in Chinese negotiations and comes to the conclusion that there are in fact significant differences in how Chinese negotiators approach tasks (Lei, 2013). According to Lei, negotiators from Northern and Central regions of China use what is often referred to as “the Chinese negotiating style” by Western literature (Lei, 2013). However, negotiators from the Eastern and Southern region place less importance on face and relationships, use a competitive approach and are very deal-focused (Lei, 2013). When preparing Western negotiators for working with a Chinese delegation, it is therefore very much important to stress the fact that interregional differences do exist in China, instead of relying on a stereotypical assumption of the classic Chinese way of negotiation. This is not to say that specific national coaching for negotiators are without merit. However, one must be conscious of the limitations of such coachings, wary of the dangers of overgeneralization and attentive towards interregional cultural differences.

The field of international diplomacy is ever-shifting and constantly evolving. While the dissonances of cross-cultural communication were of little concern to diplomats just a mere generation ago, we have now moved away from a Western-centric system towards a more global perspective (Cohen, 2001). Now aware of the fact that there exist cultural differences between nations which have the potential to influence the outcome of negotiations, we need to take the next step and acknowledge that our system is changing in a way in which the effects of cultural differences are increasingly nuanced and complex. One of the reasons for this is the emergence of different regional groups which increasingly attempt to act as a unified actor on the stage of global diplomacy. A shift towards multilateral negotiations is another factor (Cohen, 2001). Finally one must also be aware that international negotiations are no longer the exclusive realm of foreign services – today, multilateral corporations and other stakeholders are also concerned with negotiations, stakeholders which very much can be comprised of individuals of very different cultural backgrounds.

One might argue that coaching in specific national styles of negotiating behaviour is indispensable and that preparing for the various ways in which the culturally diverse makeup of a delegation might influence its negotiation behaviour would prove to be a Sisyphean task. However, this paper is not to be understood as a call to abolish training in specific negotiation styles. It simply stresses that when preparing for negotiations, we must stay alert and conscious of the fact that there might exist cultural differences not only between, but also within the negotiating parties. Focusing too much on a stereotypical negotiation style which is supposedly exemplar for a delegation, be it a national or regional one, might do more harm than good. In the following years, we are going to witness a trend of increased diversity within delegations, partially due to the emergence of regional actors on the international landscape of diplomacy. Literature must pay increased attention to this phenomenon, as heightened awareness is necessary if one wants to adequately address the challenges that arise with the increasingly complex realities of international negotiations.

Christina Keßler is currently a graduate student at the College of Europe where she pursues a degree in European Political and Governance Studies. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences from Amsterdam University College, as part of which she spent a semester at the National University of Singapore. During her undergraduate education she focused on Politics, International Relations, and Communication.


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