One of the emerging countries in Southeast Asia is Malaysia, whose natural resources and stable economic growth are allowing it
One of the emerging countries in Southeast Asia is Malaysia, whose natural resources and stable economic growth are allowing it to develop as an important manufacturing center in the region along with Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand. What happens when American businesspeople visit Malaysia to do business? In the following example, cross-cultural researcher George Renwick describes major differences between the two cultures as they approach a negotiation.
Americans’ patterns of negotiation, like all of their patterns, differ somewhat depending upon their context. The negotiating patterns of government officials working out a treaty, for example, are somewhat different from those of a business executive “hammering out” a contract. The pattern portrayed here will be that of the business executive.
The American businessperson usually begins a series of negotiating sessions in a cordial manner, but he is intent on getting things under way. He is very clear as to what he and his company want, when it is wanted, and how he will go about getting it; he has planned his strategy carefully. And he has done what he could to “psyche out” his counterpart, with whom he will be negotiating. From the outset, the American negotiator urges everyone to “dispense with the formalities” and get on with the business at hand. As soon as possible, he expresses his determination, saying something like, “Okay, let’s get down to brass tacks.”
The American usually states his position (at least his first position) early and definitely. He plans before long to “really get down to the nitty gritty.” He wants to “zero in” on the knotty problems and get to the point where “the rubber meets the road” (the point, that is, where “the action” begins). Once the negotiations are “really rolling,” the American usually deals directly with obstacles as they come up, tries to clear them away in quick order, and becomes impatient and frustrated if he cannot.
Most of what the American wants to convey, of course, he puts into words—often many of them. His approach is highly verbal and quite visible—and thoroughly planned. He has outlined his alternative ahead of time and prepared his counterproposals, contingencies, backup positions, bluffs, guarantees, and tests of compliance, all carefully calculated, and including, of course, lots of numbers. Toward the end, he sees that some bailout provisions are included, but he usually doesn’t worry too much about them; making and meeting business commitments “on schedule” is what his life is all about—he is not too concerned about getting out. If he has to get out, then he has to, and he will find a way when the time comes.
The American experiences real satisfaction when all the problems have been “worked out,” especially if he has been able to get provisions very favorable to his company—and to his own reputation as a “tough negotiator.” He rests securely when everything is “down in black and white” and the contract is initialed or signed.
Afterward, the American enjoys himself; he relaxes “over some drinks” and carries on some “small talk” and “jokes around” with his team and their counterparts.
Malay patterns of negotiation, as might be expected, differ considerably. When they are buying something, Malays bargain with the merchant, and when they are working, they socialize with their boss and coworkers. Their purpose is to develop some sense of relationship with the other person. The relationship then provides the basis, or context, for the exchange. Malays take the same patterns and preferences into their negotiating sessions. When all is said and done, it is not the piece of paper they trust, it is the person—and their relationship with the person.
A Malay negotiator begins to develop the context for negotiations through the interaction routines appropriate to this and similar occasions. These routines are as complicated and subtle as customary American routines; they are cordial but quite formal. Like Americans and their own routines, Malays understand the Malay routines but are seldom consciously aware of them. Neither Malays nor Americans understand very clearly the routines of the other.
As the preliminary context is formed, it is important to the Malay that the proper forms of address be known beforehand and used and that a variety of topics be talked about that are unrelated to the business to be transacted. This may continue for quite a while. A Malay negotiator wants his counterpart to participate comfortably, patiently, and with interest. As in other interaction, it is not the particular words spoken which are of most importance to the Malay; rather he listens primarily to the attitudes which the words convey—attitudes toward the Malay himself and toward the matter being negotiated. Attitudes are important to the relationship. At this point and throughout the negotiations, the Malay is as much concerned about the quality of the relationship as the quantity of the work accomplished. Motivation is more important to the Malay than momentum.
The Malay negotiator, as in other situations, is also aware of feelings—his own and those of his counterpart, and the effects of the exchanges upon both. He is also aware of, and concerned about, how he looks in the eyes of his team, how his counterpart looks in the eyes of the other team, and how both he and his counterpart will look after the negotiations in the eyes of their respective superiors.
The Malay is alert to style, both his own and that of his counterpart. Displaying manners is more important than scoring points. The way one negotiates is as important as what one negotiates. Grace and finesse show respect for the other and for the matter under consideration. Negotiating, like other interaction, is something of an art form. Balance and restraint are therefore essential.
The agenda that the Malay works through in the course of the negotiation is usually quite flexible. His strategy is usually rather simple. His positions are expressed in more general terms than the American’s, but no less strongly held. His proposals are more offered than argued: they are offered to the other party rather than argued with him. Malays do not enjoy sparring. They deeply dislike combat.
In response to a strong assertion, the Malay negotiator usually expresses his respect directly by replying
indirectly. The stronger the assertion and the more direct the demands, the more indirect the reply—at least the verbal reply. The Malay and his team usually formulate their positions gradually and carefully. By the time they present their position, they usually have quite a lot of themselves invested in it. Direct rejection of the position, therefore, is sometimes felt to be a rejection of the person. Negotiating for the Malay is not quite the game that it is for some Americans.
If the Malay and his team have arrived at a position from which they and those whom they represent cannot move, they will not move. If this requires a concession from the counterpart, the Malays will not try to force the concession. If the counterpart sees that a concession from him is necessary, and makes it, the Malays, as gentlemen, recognize the move and respect the man who made it. A concession, therefore, is not usually considered by the Malay team to be a sign that they can press harder and extract further concessions. Instead, a concession by either side is considered as evidence of strength and a basis for subsequent reconciliation and cooperation.
What about getting out a contract? Making and meeting business commitments is not what a Malay’s life is all about. He has other, often prior, commitments. He therefore enters into contracts cautiously and prefers to have an exit provided.
In addition, Malays are certain of their control over the future (even their control of their own country) than are Americans. Therefore, promising specific kinds of performance in the future by specific dates in a contract, especially in a long-term contract where the stakes are high, is often difficult for Malays. It is even more difficult, of course, if they are not certain whether they can trust the persons to whom they are making the commitment and from whom they are accepting commitments. Malays therefore give a great deal of thought to a contract and to the contracting party before signing it. And they are uneasy if provisions have not been made for a respectable withdrawal should future circumstances make their compliance impossible.
1. What are the differences between an American and Malay approach to business relationships?
2. How are the different approaches important to understanding negotiations and cultural differences?
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