18/11/2010 - 00:00

Body language barrier between East and West

18/11/2010 - 00:00


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There are clear cultural differences between the body language used by Western and Asian negotiators. Understanding these differences will prevent negotiators from inadvertently sending the wrong signals

RESEARCH has found that territory and space is associated with a visible indication of status and power across cultures.

Therefore, sitting in more open body positions, occupying more physical space and using expansive gestures is an expression of dominance.

Interestingly, another indicator of dominance is the ability to be relaxed and poised. Superiors are more likely to lean back in the chair, use an open-arms position, stretch out, and place their arms and legs in relaxed positions

A third non-verbal indicator of dominance is the expression of emotion, particularly negative emotion such as anger. A person expressing anger is thought to be dominant, competent, smart and persuasive.

The level and form of dominant non-verbal displays varies depending on a negotiator’s culture and gender.

Chinese negotiators express dominance by manipulating their environment, rather than their bodies.

They have more restrained and rigid posture and fewer displays of negative emotion than Canadian negotiators. However, they take up more space than Canadian negotiators.

One reason for this might be the social norms that constrain Chinese male negotiators from expressing dominance with a free and relaxed posture, so they instead reveal it through spreading their papers out and taking up space.

Japanese negotiators demonstrate this by seating the most powerful and senior executive at the head of the table, facing the door.

In contrast, typical dominant cues used by Westerners include the use of negative emotions, sitting in more open body positions, and the use of expansive gestures.

The more dominant the behaviour displayed by a negotiator, the more satisfied they are with the negotiation process.

International business negotiators face complex challenges including cultural differences in communication styles, strategic repertoires, and cognitive schemas.

These differences often lead to a culture clash, either due to negotiators failing to adapt or over-adapting to their partner, which can cause a variety of misunderstandings, misattributions, and conflict.

Given that 80 per cent of communication is conveyed nonverbally, by understanding cultural differences in nonverbal communication we can develop a clearer picture of why and how communication problems arise in cross-cultural negotiation.

Based on gender role stereotypes, men are viewed as active, strong, critical, dominant, aggressive, and extroverted. Females, in contrast, are viewed as passive, weak, nurturing, adaptive, relational, and agreeable.

Nonverbal displays of dominance are more common among male than female negotiators, and cultural differences in display are primarily evident among the males.

My research shows that Western and Eastern cross-cultural negotiators try to adapt to one another, therefore Western negotiators should be aware that using space like their Eastern counterparts may be perceived as a display of dominance. Likewise, their own tendency to sit in a relaxed position and display negative emotion may head negotiations in the wrong direction.

• Associate professor Wendi Adair is a visiting professor at Melbourne Business School.



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