Negotiating with “Romans” — Part 1

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“Smith,” an American, arrived at the French attorney’s Paris office for their first meeting. Their phone conversations had been in French, and Smith, whose experience with the language included ten years of education in the United States, a year of residence in France with a French family, and annual trips to Paris for the previous seven years, expected to use French at this meeting. “Dupont,” the Frenchman, introduced himself in French. His demeanor was poised and dignified; his language, deliberate and precise. Smith followed Dupont’s lead, and they went on to talk about a mutual acquaintance. After ten minutes, Dupont shifted the topic by inquiring about Smith’s previous work in international negotiations. One of Dupont’s words —“opérations” — surprised Smith, and he hesitated to respond. In a split second, Dupont, in fluent English, asked: “Would you like to speak in English?”1

Smith used the approach to cross-cultural interaction most widely advocated in the West, with a history dating back to St. Augustine: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” It had seemed to be a reasonable way to convey cooperativeness, sensitivity to French culture, and respect for Dupont as an individual. But Smith overlooked important considerations, as have many other people who continue to recommend or follow this approach.2

The need for guidance for cross-cultural negotiators is clear. Every negotiator belongs to a group or society with its own system of knowledge about social interaction — its own “script” for behavior.3 Whether the boundaries of the group are ethnic, organizational, ideological, or national, its culture influences members’ negotiations — through their conceptualizations of the process, the ends they target, the means they use, and the expectations they hold of counterparts’ behavior. There is ample evidence that such negotiation rules and practices vary across cultures.4 Thus cross-cultural negotiators bring into contact unfamiliar and potentially conflicting sets of categories, rules, plans, and behaviors.

Doing as “Romans” do has not usually resolved this conflict effectively. (Throughout this article, the terms “Romans” and “non-Romans” are used as shorthand for “other-culture negotiators” and “own-culture negotiators,” respectively.) “Fitting in” requires capabilities that relatively few non-Romans possess; most cultures involve much more than greeting protocols.5 The approach takes for granted that Romans accept a non-Roman’s behaving like a Roman when, actually, many Romans believe in at least some limits for outsiders.


1. All examples that are not referenced come from personal communication or the author’s experiences.

2. Contemporary academic advocates of this approach for negotiators include:

S.T. Cavusgil and P.N. Ghauri, Doing Business in Developing Countries (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 123–124;

J.L. Graham and R.A. Herberger, Jr., “Negotiators Abroad — Don’t Shoot from the Hip,” Harvard Business Review, July–August 1983, p. 166; and

F. Posses, The Art of International Negotiation (London: Business Books, 1978), p. 27.

3. The concept of a script has been applied by:

W.B. Gudykunst and S. Ting-Toomey, Culture and Interpersonal Communication (Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1988), p. 30.

4. See, for example, N.C.G. Campbell et al., “Marketing Negotiations in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States,”Journal of Marketing 52 (1988): 49–62; and

J.L. Graham et al., “Buyer-Seller Negotiations around the Pacific Rim: Differences in Fundamental Exchange Processes,” Journal of Consumer Research 15 (1988): 48–54.

For evidence from diplomacy, see:

R. Cohen, Negotiating across Cultures (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1991); and

G. Fisher, International Negotiation: A Cross-Cultural Perspective (Yarmouth, Maine: Intercultural Press, 1980).

5. See J.L. Graham and N.J. Adler, “Cross-Cultural Interaction: The International Comparison Fallacy,” Journal of International Business Studies 20 (1989): 515–537. The authors conclude that their subjects adapted to some extent, but a lack of adaptability could also be convincingly argued from their data.

6. For an experimental study showing that moderate adaptation by Asians in the United States was more effective than substantial adaptation, see:

J.N.P. Francis, “When in Rome? The Effects of Cultural Adaptation on Intercultural Business Negotiations,” Journal of International Business Studies 22 (1991): 403–428.

7. The majority of leaders of North American firms still lack any expatriate experience and foreign language ability, according to:

N.J. Adler and S. Bartholomew, “Managing Globally Competent People,” The Executive 6 (1992): 58.

8. See, for example, D. Ricks and V. Mahajan, “Blunders in International Marketing: Fact or Fiction?” Long Range Planning 17 (1984): 78–83. Note that the impact of faux pas may vary in magnitude across cultures. In some cultures, inappropriate behavior constitutes an unforgivable transgression, not a “slip-up.”

9. M. Blaker, Japanese International Negotiating Style (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 50.

10. See V.E. Cronen and R. Shuter, “Forming Intercultural Bonds,” Intercultural Communication Theory: Current Perspectives, ed. W.B. Gudykunst (Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1983), p. 99. Their concept of “coherence” neither presumes that the interactants make the same sense of the interaction nor depends always on mutual understanding.

11. Although similar in form, this plot differs in theme from the “model of conflict-handling responses” developed by:

K.W. Thomas and R.H. Kilmann, Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (Tuxedo, New York: Xicom, Inc., 1974).

It also differs in key variables from the “Dual Concerns” model of:

D.G. Pruitt and J.Z. Rubin, Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement (New York: Random House, 1986), p. 35ff.

Moreover, neither of these models appears to have yet been applied cross-culturally.

12. This notion of familiarity draws on Dell Hymes’s concept of communicative competence. See:

R.E. Cooley and D.A. Roach, “A Conceptual Framework,” Competence in Communication, ed. R.N. Bostrom (Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1984), pp. 11–32.

13. See, for example, R.W. Brislin et al., Intercultural Interactions (Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1986);

A.T. Church, “Sojourner Adjustment,” Psychological Bulletin 91 (1982): 545–549;

P.C. Earley, “Intercultural Training for Managers,” Academy of Management Review 30 (1987): 685–698; and

J.S. Black and M. Mendenhall, “Cross-cultural Training Effectiveness: A Review and Theoretical Framework for Future Research,” Academy of Management Review 15 (1990): 113–136.

14. J.S. Black and M. Mendenhall, “The U-Curve Adjustment Hypothesis Revisited: A Review and Theoretical Framework,” Journal of International Business Studies 22 (1991): 225–247.

15. Changing the parties involved is commonly mentioned in dispute resolution literature. See, for example:

R. Fisher and W. Ury, Getting to Yes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), pp. 71–72.

16. S. Lohr, “Barter Is His Stock in Trade,” New York Times Business World, 25 September 1988, pp. 32–36.

17. For empirical research on negotiating representatives and their boundary role, constituents, and accountability within a culture, see:

D.G. Pruitt, Negotiation Behavior (New York: Academic Press, 1981), pp. 41–44, 195–197.

With respect to agents, see:

J.Z. Rubin and F.E.A. Sander, “When Should We Use Agents? Direct vs. Representative Negotiation,” Negotiation Journal, October 1988, pp. 395–401.

18. S.E. Weiss, “The Long Path to the IBM-Mexico Agreement: An Analysis of the Microcomputer Investment Negotiations, 1983–1986,” Journal of International Business Studies 21 (1990): 565–596.

19. J.L. Graham and Y. Sano, Smart Bargaining: Doing Business with the Japanese (New York: Ballinger, 1989), p. 30.

20. R. Lacey, The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa’ud (New York: Avon Books, 1981), pp. 464–466. See also:

P.E. Tyler, “Double Exposure: Saudi Arabia’s Middleman in Washington,” The New York Times Magazine, 7 June 1992, pp. 34ff.

21. For additional ideas about what a mediator may do, see:

P.J.D. Carnevale, “Strategic Choice in Mediation,” Negotiation Journal 2 (1986): 41–56.

22. See J.Z. Rubin, “Introduction,” Dynamics of Third Party Intervention, ed. J.Z. Rubin (New York: Praeger, 1981), pp. 3–43; and

S. Touval and I.W. Zartman, “Mediation in International Conflicts” Mediation Research, eds. K. Kressel and D.G. Pruitt (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989), pp. 115–137.

23. S.E. Weiss, “Negotiating the CGE-ITT Telecommunications Merger, 1985–1986: A Framework-then-Details Process,” paper presented at the Academy of International Business annual meeting, November 1991.

24. Such positions have been associated with people in nations with long-established cultures, such as China, France, and India. For instance, some Mexican high officials who speak English fluently have insisted on speaking Spanish in their meetings with Americans. While this position could be influenced by the historical antipathy in the U.S.-Mexico relationship and the officials’ concern for the status of their office, it also evinces cultural pride.

25. “IBM World Trade Corporation,” Harvard Business School, reprinted in S.M. Davis, Managing and Organizing Multinational Corporations (New York: Pergamon Press, 1979), p. 53.

26. Adapting has been widely discussed in the literature. See, for example:

S. Bochner, “The Social Psychology of Cross-Cultural Relations,” Cultures in Contact, ed. S. Bochner (Oxford: Pergamon, 1982), pp. 5–44.

27. S.E. Weiss, “Creating the GM-Toyota Joint Venture: A Case in Complex Negotiation,” Columbia Journal of World Business, Summer 1987, pp. 23–37; and

S.E. Weiss, “One Impasse, One Agreement: Explaining the Outcomes of Toyota’s Negotiations with Ford and GM,” paper presented at the Academy of International Business annual meeting, 1988.

28. P.R. Cateora and J.M. Hess, International Marketing (Homewood, Illinois: Irwin, 1971), p. 407.

29. C. Bruck, “Leap of Faith,” The New Yorker, 9 September 1991, pp. 38–74.

30. See C. Thubron, Behind the Wall (London: Penguin, 1987), pp. 158, 186–187.

31. L. Sloane, “Lee, Coke’s Man in China,” The New York Times, 5 February 1979, p. D2.

32. W.C. Symonds et al., “High-Tech Star,” Business Week, 27 July 1992, pp. 55–56.

33. Found among the exhibits at the Carter Center Library and Museum, Atlanta, Georgia.

34. R. Fisher, “Playing the Wrong Game?” Dynamics of Third Party Intervention, ed. J.Z. Rubin (New York: Praeger, 1981), pp. 98–99, 105–106.

On the additional problem of losing touch with constituencies, see the 1989–1991 Bush-Gorbachev talks described in:

M.R. Beschloss and S. Talbott, At the Highest Levels (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993).

35. See C. Dupont, “The Channel Tunnel Negotiations, 1984–1986: Some Aspects of the Process and Its Outcome,” Negotiation Journal 6 (1990): 71–80.

36. See, for example, C.F. Alger, “United Nations Participation as a Learning Experience,” Public Opinion Quarterly, Summer 1983, pp. 411–426.

37. E.O. Reischauer, My Life between Japan and America (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), p. 183.

38. N.B. Thayer and S.E. Weiss, “Japan: The Changing Logic of a Former Minor Power,” National Negotiating Styles, ed. H. Binnendijk (Washington, D.C.: Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State, 1987), pp. 69–72.


I carried out the early stages of this work during my visits at the Euro-Asia Centre at INSEAD and Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. For comments on earlier drafts, I thank Ellen Auster, J. Stewart Black, Tamara Johnson, Andre Laurent, Tom Murtha, David Saunders, Susan Schneider, Jim Tiessen, William Weiss, Sloan Management Review editors, and anonymous reviewers. Portions of this material were presented at the Academy of International Business annual meeting (1991), the Pacific Rim Forum of the David Lam Centre for International Communication at Simon Fraser University (1992), the Academy of Management annual conference (1992), the Negotiation Workshop at York University (1993), and the Joint Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Toronto (1993).

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