How should we negotiate with Americans? The question sounds simpler than it is. Most Western business people feel that they know what Americans are like and they thus feel confident negotiating with them. Most Americans who negotiate with fluent English speakers from abroad feel confident that they are being understood. Beware not to fall for an illusion! Just because we all speak English, it doesn’t mean that we all speak the same language.
The other week, I had the great honor to speak in front of the Iranian Banking and Business Forum in Frankfurt where I was asked to give advice on how to negotiate with Americans. I was glad to share some of my observations from actual negotiation projects that we’ve helped with over the course of the years. The key points are: unlike most other cultures, Americans have a unique perspective on time, partnership, and winning.
Remember: America is still among the youngest cultures in the world. The United States were founded less than 300 years ago. This has great implications for the American perception of what is important. Generally, Americans care very little about what ‘has been’, they are focused on ‘what is’ and ‘what to do’. While Europeans and Asians love long-term planning for years – or in some cases generations – Americans have little patience for this. They focus on what’s next: next quarter.
Americans are easy to approach but that doesn’t mean they don’t care who you are. Quite the contrary: they want to know exactly what makes you special. So when you introduce yourself, talk about your achievements. Also, they like to separate people from problems. One night, they invite you for dinner and have the greatest fun with you, next day they are playing all hard and tough in a negotiation. This is to be expected – don’t take it personal.
Win-win? Forget it. To Americans, there is only winning. And if one wins, the other loses. These are the rules of the game. Speaking of: if you want to know about American culture, you need to know about competitive sports. No surprise that American business English is full of sports terms: “ballpark figure”, “homerun”, “give it a shot”… it’s all about playing hard to make it first. By the way, Americans are very forgiving, they respect people who try and fail. It’s only important to get up again and keep playing.
- Time perspective: In a negotiation, your American partner may prioritize ‘quick wins’ over longterm gains
- Separate people from the problem: when you negotiate, you are no friends, solely focus on your goal
- Learn about American sports as a small talk topic and to develop the right attitude for negotiations
- When you play the game of negotiation, play it hard and seek to win
- When you fail, don’t take it personal – try again and have fun
For detailled insights into the U.S. Negotiating Behavior, read the Special Report by the U.S. Institute of Peace.