Cultural Differences in Negotiation

Description of the Cultural Specificity or Dimension[1]

The Compliment (Ta’arof in Persian) is one of the unique aspects of Iranian culture, which does not have any Western cultural counterpart. The unfamiliarity caused a degree of exaggeration about this concept. Some examples would help define this concept. On the first occasion, imagine when you are getting off a taxi and ask the driver about the fare. However, he may respond: I did not do anything so important, be my guest (no need to pay). The second incidents are ‘opening the door for a woman by a man.’[2]

 Alternatively, convoying the guests by the host after a meeting or ceremony. Another example would be using hands and head gestures for inviting the guests to the dining table or bowing before an important person. Moreover, you may receive an invitation letter to a ceremony or a usually formal letter calling the addressee with the titles like ‘your excellency,’ ‘your honor,’ etc. 

The previous examples indicate the four main categories of these actions.[3]

 The most obvious and prevalent form of compliments is ‘verbal’ or ‘lingual.’ This form can occur in non-exhaustive types of sentences; what the taxi driver said in the first example above is only a sample. What is typical between the shopkeepers to show their goods’ price as worthless before a buyer is another instance. The second incidents above are ‘Practical’ compliments. However, as a form of verbal Compliment accompanies them in most situations, they cannot be an independent category. The third examples are about what can be called ‘ultra-lingual’ compliments, which mainly take the form of body language communication. The fourth type of compliments is ‘written’ and can be found in formal letters and invitations.

What is essential to consider in these incidents is that these actions are nothing more than a sign of respect and importance towards their addressees. Their users’ underlying intent is not the same as their actions may indicate, as this sense of respect and importance originated from their social values. The bestowal of a present, even a valuable item like a rug or saffron, which is common and acceptable in Iranian culture, should not be misunderstood as bribery or forcing the other party to do a favor in exchange. It is again a simple sign of respect. However, ‘the lack of attention to it is accompanied by a form of social punishment’[4]

 and maybe held as being disrespectful or rude by the other party. It is a double-edged sword. The knowledge of the users and the addresses have a crucial role in understanding these incidents.

Impact on a Negotiation

 Like any other cultural aspect, the Compliment can affect the process of negotiation. This effect would have a binary nature; it can either facilitate the achievement of a reliable result that preserves both parties’ interests or can jeopardize the whole process. The following paragraphs indicate both types of impacts the Compliment may have on the negotiation process. Bear in mind that all of this analysis is based on the presumption of the addressees’ unfamiliarity with this concept. 

 Generally, all different categories of compliments are a sign of respect and politeness. As the Iranian people use them on diverse occasions and mostly unconsciously, they might be understood as a sign of good faith and flexibility. From this viewpoint, every Compliment has a trust-building function that may positively affect the negotiations’ outcome. In line with this role, it can also be a useful instrument in changing the other party’s uncooperative style.

 On the other hand, the possible negative impacts of this phenomenon cannot be ignored. First, if it is combined with bad faith, it can form an information-gathering technique. In other words, in an abusive application, it first helps the user gain the other party’s trust and persuade him to disclose the information which s/he would not normally do and then use them against him/her. Second, using compliments excessively, which often happens, would harden the communication around the negotiation table and result in misunderstandings. Consequently, it may weaken the Iranian party’s position and make the other party more demanding than cooperating. For instance, during the negotiations on the pricing of a specific product, the Iranian seller, using verbal compliments, shows its product’s price as worthless, irrespective of its actual intention, which is usually the opposite. The buyer, in this case, would probably try to increase his margin of profit unreasonably. Lastly, some Compliment forms may put the other party under pressure to make different decisions or take further measures against his will. Practical and written compliments are usually involved in these instances. As previously indicated, it is a common tradition in Iranian culture to bestow gifts or even Persian handcrafts, especially in negotiation with foreign nationals, again as a sign of their respect and gratitude towards the other party. The counterpart may understand this behavior as a request for reconsideration, more flexibility in his positions, or a complete mind change. In an extreme situation and sensitive negotiations, it may be understood even as a form of bribery. As a response, s/he may decide to leave the negotiation table and accuse the other party of bad faith.

 In conclusion, notwithstanding the positive effects the Compliment may have on the negotiations, what threatens the entirety of the process, may put the achievement of a suitable outcome in a halo of ambiguity, and prove the importance of the proper introduction of this concept are the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of these actions, which themselves are the results of the unfamiliarity of the people with different cultural backgrounds. This paper, by providing several instances and categorizing this behavior, tried to facilitate recognizing the occasions in which compliments may be used.                     

[1] This paper presented as an assignment for the course on ‘Negotiation and Mediation’ in the Advanced Studies of International Dispute Settlement and Arbitration in The Leiden University in 2020-21 Academic year

[2] Shirdal Airya, ‘Know the Compliments in Iranian Culture’ <> accessed 27 September 2020

[3] See in Persian: Shamayeli Alirezaei, ‘Ta’arof Dar Farhange Mardome Iran’ (The Compliment in the Culture of Iranian People) (2008) 8-9 Najvay-e-Farhang 101

[4] Shirdal Airya (n 2)

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