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By Steven G. Mehta

In today’s closely connected society where a person from one culture can easily hop a plane and be half a world away, it is important to understand the nuances of cultural differences.  What is appropriate and what is not?  Can you give something with your left hand?  Can you show  your tattoos?

Well, fasten your seatbelts, these questions can be answered at a a site called that provides simple but informative cartoons that reflect the cultural differences in Europe and Asia.  The site provides a a brief explanation of a simple concept.  This way you can learn a very small point and not be overwhelmed.  For example, the site explains Vietnamese restaurant etiquette as follows:

The first thing a Vietnamese person will do after greeting you is to ask if you have eaten. More than in China, where the question ‘have you eaten. More than in China, where the question ‘have you eaten?’ is equivalent to asking how you are, in Vietnam the question is to be taken literally and the likelihood is that you will be whisked off to a restaurant before you have had a chance to answer.

Whether you have been invited to someone’s house, you are attending a business meeting or you’re just hanging out with locals, you will almost always be taken out to go and eat somewhere. Dining out is an integral part of Vietnamese life and going on a diet when travelling to Vietnam is a very bad idea! The likelihood of your breaking it is 100%.

It is customary in Vietnamese restaurants and bars to pay for a round of drinks or for the whole evening. You do not divide the bill between people. As in China, your Vietnamese host may insist quite strongly on being allowed to pay the bill, as a sign of respect to you. If it is your turn to pay, try to avoid the bill being brought to the table. Leave the table discreetly before the meal is over and pay away from your guests.

In Vietnam, there is no tradition of after-dinner conversation. When people have finished eating, the person with the highest status gets up and the party leaves.

The most popular dish in Vietnam is pho, a noodle soup with a clear meat broth. Many Vietnamese people regard pho as their national dish. The wordpho can be translated as ‘your own bowl’. It is one of the few items of food in Vietnam which is not passed around and shared. Be careful! Pho is very spicy. It has recently become very popular in the U.S.

Information such as this can be helpful not only when you go to that country but also if you are in another country working with a person from that culture.

By Steven G. Mehta

Many weeks during mediation, it appears that not a day will go by without having some overt demonstration of anger being shown by one of the participants during the mediation.  The question, however, is whether the anger has an effect on the negotiations.  Anecdotally, it cannot not have an effect.  The only issue is whether it can help to increase or decrease your negotiating position.

One study recently addressed this issue from a cultural perspective.  Researchers Hajo Adam and Aiwa Shirako evaluated whether culture affected how anger was percieved.  The research found that in a hypothetical negotiation scenario (Study 1) and a computer-mediated negotiation simulation (Study 2), expressing anger (relative to not expressing anger) obtained larger concessions from European/American negotiators, but smaller concessions from Asian and Asian American negotiators.  In both of the two studies, the anger was not appropriate to the circumstance.  However, when the anger was appropriate to the circumstances, Asian and Asian American negotiators made larger concessions to the angry opponent, and their concessions were as large as was typical for European American negotiators.  Across the board, the study found that anger elicited greater concessions from the Europeans and Americans.  This was in part based on the fact that expressions of anger are more accepted in the European and American culture.  The study also showed that expressions of anger can be very detrimental in negotiations with Asians.

The reality is that anger is a a very dangerous thing and the use of it can backfire more than it can create concessions.  Often, even in cultures that accept anger, it can lead to parties shutting down because of their emotional response to the anger.  This study proves that emotional reactions to the use of anger can have very real consequences to negotiations.

In my experience, the study may have it wrong as to the reasons for the concessions.  For example, with Euro/American participants, they are shocked by the use of anger.  They generally have one of two responses:  They shut down or they make greater concessions.  This could be because many Northern European cultures are not emotionally expressive cultures (as opposed to countries in Latin America or in the Middle East).   The Asian culture is also even more restrictive of emotional outbursts of anger.

There could also be a different effect when there is mediation versus direct negotiations.  Often the parties are more willing to express their anger to the third party mediator knowing that the full expression of that anger won’t be communicated to the other side.

It would be interesting to see the use of  anger with such emotionally expressive cultures and also to see how such anger worked in the context of a mediated case.

Research Source:

Cultural Variance in the Interpersonal Effects of Anger in Negotiations, Psychological Science

  1. Hajo Adam1,
  2. Aiwa Shirako2 and
  3. William W. Maddux1

Steve MehtaBy Steven G. Mehta

It’s as easy as 1-2-3 you say.  Well that may not be so easy if you are dealing with intercultural communications.  I recently read some research on that highlighted the importance of intercultural communications.  Negotiations are often fraught with problems anyway.  Adding the additional element of intercultural differences can make it extremely difficult to deal with

In a recent study by the University of Alberta’s Elena Nicoladis, an experimental psychologist, and Simone Pika, a lecturer at the University of Manchester, the researchers highlighted the simple issue of counting as creating an intercultural fiasco.   The article, published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, examines cultural differences in the use of hand gestures that could lead to miscommunications or misunderstandings.

Nicoladis and colleagues studied one and two-hand counting gestures and cultural differences between Germans and French and English Canadians. While the majority of Germans use their thumb to begin to sequentially count, the majority of Canadians, both French and English, use their index finger as the numerical kick-off point when counting with their hands.

This simple difference can create major communications errors.  For example, Nicoladis recounted one small problem when she was traveling.  “I asked for directions on the U-Bahn to an older woman and she told me to get off in four stops, so I said, ‘ja, vier’ and held up my four fingers,” she said. “She went off on a tirade saying ‘nein, nein, vier’ and held up the conventional gesture (using her thumb and three fingers).” The differentiation is because, in Germany for instance, the thumb is automatically counted as a numerical value. Thus, Nicoladis was showing five digits instead of four.

Knowledge of this small difference could have also saved the life of an British spy in Quentin Tarantino’s new film Inglourious Basterds; in which a character, an English army officer posing as a German SS captain, is exposed when he orders drinks without using his thumb in the count. He and his colleagues are shot for his faux pas.

While seasoned travellers will often research local customs and social practices to acclimatize themselves to life in their destination of choice, the same must be done when negotiating with people from different cultures.

There are several strategies that can be placed before negotiating with someone from a different culture.

First, remember there are NO STEREOTYPES.  Any information you obtain regarding a culture should be evaluated in the context of the individual.  Relying on stereotypes can be dangerous.

Second, understand that culture does make a difference in how people view the world.  Culture, by the way, is not just a different ethnographic background.  But it can the norms of different groups.  For example, real estate negotiations are different than legal negotiations.  Medical Malpractice negotiations are different than divorce.  Each group can be considered a culture and can have an affect on the negotiation.

Third, conduct research about the culture.  Learn about its history, its art, its sayings, and its beliefs.  What is important to the people from that culture. For example, the Chinese culture is hierarchical, whereas the American society is less so.  Indian history reveals a caste system that has affected the people of that culture.

Fourth, develop a plan of attack that takes into consideration the negotiating research and the cultural norms.  For example, some cultures do not like to get straight down to business; whereas others, like Americans, do.

Fifth, trust your instinct if something seems amiss, it probably is.  Step back and evaluate why.  Is it cultural?

Sixth, build in times or spots where you can take a timeout that you can use to evaluate the new information and reconsider whether your responses and moves are appropriate.

Finally, maintain flexibility at all times.  Don’t just be locked into one course of conduct.

Research Source:

University of Alberta (2009, September 30). Ein, Zwei, Molson Dry? Researcher Says Hand Gesturing To Count In Foreign Countries Can Be Tricky. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 30, 2009

By Steven G. MehtaSteve Mehta


Many people have wondered about how juries react to the pain of other people that they are judging.  Well new research has discovered some interesting conclusions regarding how people empathize with others.  A study reported in the July 1 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience  reports that an observer feels more empathy for someone in pain when that person is in the same social group.

Based upon brain imaging studies, the study found that perceiving others in pain activates a part of the brain associated with empathy and emotion more if the observer and the observed are the same race. The authors believe that this research is not limited to race but to all types of similar socio-economic factors. 

The study confirms by neuroimaging others’ suppositions that people are biased towards others that are in their same social and cultural group.

This type of research requires additional investigation to confirm such biases among a variety of social groups.  But it starts to give an understanding of bias that is crucial to all areas in social interaction.  As for juries, this research confirms that there probably is an inherent bias with people from the same racial group.  Clearly, in civil cases injury cases where someone is alleging that he or she is in pain, the inherent bias could affect the outcome. 

It would be interesting to see if there is a study that evaluates verdicts based upon the biases of the juries.  But for now, we can realize that biases in juries do exist.  We may never fully know the true extent of the biases.  That, however, is all the more reason for people to try and effectuate a resolution through mediation where they can control their own outcomes as opposed to relying on the biased jury. 

It is also interesting to note that over the years, I have seen a trend (anecdotally from conversations with many lawyers and observation of trials) that many people will state that juries are less empathetic to other people’s pain than previously.  Perhaps this is so because of this cultural bias as discussed here.  The United States has become much more culturally diverse, and in turn the juries are culturally diverse.  As such, because there is greater diversity on the jury, they may not associate with the parties to litigation as much on a subconscious level.

Adapted and augmented from materials provided by Society for Neuroscience

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