It’s not enough to treat people as you’d like to be treated

The Platinum Rule

In the January column we considered the benefits of “going global.” Essentially, global distribution is the same as its domestic version, only with a few additional variables.

In international negotiations we all face two risks related to culture and language. The first is that we may fail to understand what is important to the other party and treat them as if they were raised in our home culture.

The second risk is that we may send a message that is interpreted differently than we intended because of linguistic or accepted gesture differences. For example, if you are negotiating with a representative from a company in Saudi Arabia, you may intend to send no more of a message than “my feet are tired” as you cross your legs. The message you send, however, is actually quite different, since showing someone the bottom of your shoe is considered a strong insult in the Middle East.

How can you mitigate such risks? The answer is simple: Prepare for your audience. Learn what is important to them and what they are comfortable with. If this sounds like the same steps you would take in preparing for a domestic audience, you are full of insight. It is the same; you only need to add the potential differences in culture and language to the items you consider in evaluating your audience.

Before we dive into the details of preparing for intercultural negotiations, let us focus on a principle that will guide you through the entire negotiating process.

We have all learned the Golden Rule: “Treat others as you want them to treat you” (Luke 6:31). To go global effectively, you need to upgrade the Golden Rule to the Platinum Rule: “Treat others as they want to be treated.”

This Platinum Rule takes into account the different values, environments, languages, and accepted practices that combine to create the “culture” of a given party. It is not enough to treat people the way you would like to be treated; rather, you need to treat them as they wish to be treated.

On the road

Before leaving for your trip, be sure to take the steps necessary to understand the culture of the people with whom you will be negotiating. In the United States, for instance, we tend to be motivated by achievement and monetary advancements. In Asia, however, the primary motivations are centered around honor and serving the company.

Different cultures view time differently. In the United States, time is viewed as a commodity to manage, while in Australia time is viewed as a flexible and fungible flow that can be manipulated to fit the situation.

It is dangerous to share deadlines in any negotiation, because they shift power to the other party. In the same way, you may create a disadvantage for yourself if you desire a quick resolution when the other party is content to take whatever time is needed to develop a relationship as well as an agreement.

Finally, what are accepted customs, gestures, and nuances of body language? (The resources listed below provide clear guides to follow.)

With these questions answered, you can adopt strategies that are consistent with the culture. Tailor your message, itinerary, and presentation style to fit your negotiating partners. In addition, be sure to include these basic guidelines:

  • Be flexible and adapt behavior to suit the culture.
  • Show respect and willingness to listen.
  • Develop trust.
  • Have desired and fallback positions defined. The ability to walk away is always critical.

Once you are there to negotiate, be sure to follow these rules to minimize distractions and maximize the focus on problem solving and your vision:

  • Communicate clearly. State, confirm, and reaffirm ideas constantly to make sure your message is clearly understood.
  • Don’t misinterpret acknowledgement as agreement. In many countries “yes” is used to indicate that a statement is understood, not necessarily accepted.
  • Don’t be arrogant, impatient, or aggressive. There is never a reason to lose patience.
  • Be aware of gestures, customs, and other culture-specific mannerisms.
  • Remain aware.
  • Keep sourcing objectives in mind.
  • Reconfirm objectives often.
  • Don’t be lulled, distracted, or misled.
  • Consider the long-term implications of short-term decisions.
  • Understand what “can do” actually means.
  • Develop relationships. Recognize that the relationship can be more important in the long term than agreement.


There are many tools you can use to effectively prepare for international negotiations. One often-overlooked option is your freight forwarder. In many cases, the forwarder will have specific experience with the company or person with whom you are preparing to negotiate. Commercial Web sites offer detailed information on countries and companies, and government agencies provide resources to aid in the establishment of international trade. Begin your search for information at the following sites:

  1. At the Chamber of Commerce Web site (, you can search for the nearest government agency that is prepared to assist in your work.
  2. At you will find a search engine for foreign trade offices around the world, including foreign chambers of commerce, trade and economic offices, trade representative offices, and embassies located in the U.S., as well as foreign customs offices located overseas.
  3. The US State Department Web site, at, offers many services to work with companies who wish to establish international trade relationships.
  4. The CIA’s World Fact Book, available online at, provides political, demographic, and economic information for any country.

At the following sites you can gather information to assess the specific companies with whom you negotiate (some of these sites are fee-based).

  • is the Web site for Dun & Bradstreet, which collects company and market information in over 200 countries.
  • provides services similar to DNB, but is known for a strong Latin American presence.
  • provides detailed financial information on over two million companies in the United Kingdom.

The following sites provide information to help you understand accepted business practices for virtually any location:

  • provides access, for a fee, to a library of information specifically designed to aid negotiators.
  • At you will find a number of articles on etiquette and practices.
  • At you will find free access to negotiating tips, country information and cultural background, gift-giving guidelines, and links to other resources.

Timothy Van Mieghem is a founding partner of The ProAction Group, a consulting firm that helps companies leverage their supply chain to serve shareholders’ and customers’ interests. He is author of Implementing Supplier Partnerships.Van Mieghem can be reached by e-mail at and by phone at (312) 726-6111.