American anthropologist Edward Hall has compared culture to an iceberg. While a few aspects are visible above the surface, a larger portion lays hidden below, with deep-seated assumptions and social beliefs which comprise the driving force behind the visible manifestations. Professor Jayne Docherty suggests that some authors tackling the topic of negotiations focus almost entirely on the visible tip of the iceberg, presenting negotiations amongst people of different cultures as lists of “do’s and don’ts” -which proves not very helpful (Docherty, Jane,“Culture and Negotiation: Symmetrical Anthropology for Negotiations”, 87 Marq.L. Rev 2004). When involved in negotiations in the insurance field, awareness of certain cultural characteristics generally pertaining to Latin American countries can help you avoid decoding situations through your own social lens, thus improving your chances of effective communication.
Many of these general cultural characteristics can be explained using the categorization system adopted by Mr. Hall (Hall, Edward T., “Beyond Culture”), relating to the degree to which communication is influenced by social context: “low-context” vs. “high-context” cultures.
Generally, the United States is an example of a low-context culture, in which a greater level of specificity anticipates and tackles any forecasted problems. The parties negotiating have more control because they establish the rules freely. Participants exercise the liberty to define practically everything through verbal and written communication. Interactions tend to be direct, candid, specific in identifying problems, and generally open to disclosure and advocacy.
On the other hand, Latin American countries are generally seen as high-context cultures, where lack of specificity may result in a breakdown. Communications rely on pre-established social guidelines. Therefore, additional background information is needed to fully understand the messages being exchanged. Social rules complete or may even replace verbal statements. Communications are indirect and normally non-confrontational.
Three negotiating traits that are identified in the high-context cultures of the region are:
- Relationships based on trust are highly valued, and thus doing business with friends or people with whom rapport has been established is preferred. If your Latin American counterpart proposes to postpone formal negotiations to go to dinner, this is typically not to cause delay but rather to develop the type of relationship that is favored in his or her cultural environment.
- In general, do not expect blunt, negative answers. In many countries, a “No” must be inferred from a non-committal reply such as “Perhaps”, or the fact that the issue has been avoided or deferred to a later date. The intent is not to obstruct or delay negotiations but rather to avoid a confrontation that may threaten the parties’ relationship.
- Time is managed differently. Locals may state that something will be accomplished “Now” when they actually mean “In the course of the day” or “Soon”. Reaching objectives can take longer than planned. Patience and persistence are not only required, but expected.
In high-context situations, negotiation is more than an art form, it is a highly choreographed dance. One must consider the form and context of the message, and even the tempo of the exchange. It is important to have the right mindset and team up with people who recognize these subtleties. Much like having a great dance partner.
Published by Daniel Baron*
*Not licensed to practice law in Florida