around the bar
August 1, 2009

When ‘Yes!’ Means ‘No!’ – Negotiating in Cross-Cultural Settings

Perhaps your law firm regularly does international business or maybe you’re just dipping your toe into international waters with a new client. Regardless, understanding the local business practices and cultural norms of a foreign land can help you build lasting relationships with your clients and put you ahead of the competition.

At the _ Annual Meeting in Chicago, a panel of experts met to discuss this topic and share their personal experiences. “Negotiating Agreements in a Cross Cultural Setting- When No Means Yes,” was sponsored by the Section of Real Property, Trust and Estate and drew from the expertise of lawyers and international business leaders.

Panelist Arnettia Wright of the Wright Law Group presented an overview of common business and cultural practices in the Arab world. From adopting a passive and patient role, to understanding that in the Arab world, “yes” can mean “perhaps,” Wright stressed that doing business there requires flexibility. Wright encouraged participants to build an extra day into their trips in expectation of rescheduled or delayed meetings, which is normal.

Doing business with China likewise can present unexpected challenges that require confidence, patience and understanding, said panelist Jia Zhao of the firm of Baker and McKenzie’s Chicago office. Zhao noted that many of the legal roadblocks or business setbacks often stem from the extreme length of the negotiation process in China. Citing China’s bureaucracy, politics and history, Zhao noted that the culture of business dealings there has been shaped by the restrictions imposed by the socialist system.

Byron Buck, a lawyer for Caterpillar Investment Company, shared a personal story involving the language barrier in China. Land excavating machines are translated as “shovels,” so Buck thought that his business partners where talking about smaller garden tools rather than huge land moving equipment.

Buck also encouraged audience members to hire certified translators and than rely on young lawyers in your practice who may be native speakers. “Some might see this as a developmental activity for the young lawyer, but in reality two-way translation is a very hard skill and you often see ‘junior’ shaking in his shoes.”

Buck concluded the session with a helpful list of practical considerations, but reminded the audience “We are different, but not nearly as different as you might think. Humans around the world make decisions in very similar ways.”