Bridging Cultural and Technological Divides: The Role of Culture in Email Negotiations Between American and Chinese Negotiators

By Matthew Parker, a 3L law student at Harvard Law School

I. Introduction: The Role of Culture in Email Negotiations

Culture fundamentally affects email negotiations. In an increasingly globalized world where cross-border negotiations have increased substantially[1] and the use of email communication has grown exponentially,[2] surprisingly little research, however, has been conducted on culture’s role in email negotiations. Culture supplies the building blocks for interpreting and structuring social interactions like negotiations,[3] and email can fundamentally change how these social interactions are played out.[4] In this article, I bridge the gap in current negotiation research between culture and email to argue that culture is an important factor in email negotiations that influences negotiation behaviors and outcomes. Taking a case study approach by examining literature on cross-cultural negotiations between American and Chinese negotiators, I contend that different cultural influences affect the behavior of negotiators from the United States and China when they negotiate together using email.

I begin this article by reviewing some of the existing literature on the effects of culture on negotiation before turning to an examination of the way that email changes the negotiation dynamic. Combining research on email negotiations with literature on the role of culture in the negotiation process, I show that culture affects email negotiations. I then conclude by summarizing my findings and suggesting avenues for further research into the dynamic interplay between culture, email and negotiation.

II. Culture and Negotiation: A Review of the Impact of Culture on American and Chinese Negotiators

The way people understand and act during a negotiation reflects fundamental cultural assumptions varying along numerous cultural dimensions that are explored in this section of the paper.[5] While it is certainly true that there is substantial variation in negotiation behaviors, norms, values and beliefs within a culture, there is a greater and sometimes even dramatic variation between cultures.[6] The most significant cultural differences among American and Chinese negotiators occur along the individualism-collectivism, high-low power distance and high-low context dimensions.[7] Each of these differences warrants further discussion because they have a significant impact on the way American and Chinese negotiators negotiate.

  1. a.     The Individualism-Collectivism Dimension

American culture is often characterized as individualist whereas Chinese culture is seen as more collectivist.[8] In countries with highly individualist cultures like the United States, people are more likely to consider themselves as independent of the social group and thus more free to focus on personal goals.[9] As a result, American negotiators generally rely more on analytical-rational thinking styles that focus on the problem, and use tactics such as argumentation based on logic and the presentation of facts.[10] In contrast, negotiators from countries with more collectivist cultures like China rely more on intuitive-experiential thinking styles and use tactics that appeal to emotions, social obligations, and the desire to maintain harmony and save face.[11] Consequently, Chinese negotiators are more likely to think about negotiation in terms of relationships whereas American negotiators are generally more focused on outcome.[12]

New research, however, suggests that these characterizations about individualist and collectivist negotiation styles may be too simplistic and that collectivists may actually act more aggressively to out-group members (i.e. people who are not a part of their collective).[13] Researchers posit that when negotiating with strangers outside their culture, negotiators from collectivist cultures may no longer feel constrained by a concern for others and are thus more likely to reveal their egotistical sides.[14] It is thus clear that the individualism-collectivism dimension affects how negotiators negotiate, suggesting for our purposes that this cultural dimension has implications for American-Chinese email negotiations.


[1] See Wendi Adair et al., Culture and Negotiation Strategy, Negot. J. 87, 87 (2004).

[2] See Janice Nadler & Donna Shestowsky, Negotiation, Information Technology, and the Problem of the Faceless Other, in Negotiation Theory and Research 145, 145 (Leigh Thompson ed., 2006).

[3] Jeanne Brett & Michael Gelfand, A Cultural Analysis of the Underlying Assumptions of Negotiation Theory, in Frontiers of Social Psychology: Negotiations 173, 175 (Leigh Thompson ed. 2005).

[4] See, e.g., Nadler & Shestowsky, supra note 2, at 145; Ashleigh Rosette et al., When Cultures Clash Electronically: The Impact of Email and Culture on Negotiation Behavior 3 (Disp. Resol. Res. Ctr., Nw. U., Working Paper No. 302, 2004); Michael Morris et al., Schmooze or Lose: Social Friction and Lubrication in E-Mail Negotiations 6 Group Dynamics: Theory, Res., and Prac. 89 (2002).

[5] Brett & Gelfand, supra note 3, at 175.

[6] Jeanne Brett et al., Culture and Joint Gains in Negotiation, 14 Negot. J. 61, 79 (1998).

[7] Wendy Adair & Jeanne Brett, Culture and Negotiation Process, in The Handbook of Negotiation and Culture 158, 161 (Michele Gelfand & Jeanne Brett eds., 2004); E. Alan Buttery & T.K.P. Leung, The Difference Between Chinese and Western Negotiations, 32 Eur. J. Market. 374, 375-77 (1998).

[8] Brett et al., supra note 6, at 65-67.

[9] Adair & Brett, supra note 3, at 160.

[10] Gregory Kersten et al., The Effects of Culture in Anonymous Negotiations: Experiment in Four Countries, in Proceedings of the 35th Hawaii International Conference on Systems Science 418, 421 (2002).

[11] Gelfand & Dyer, A Cultural Perspective on Negotiation: Progress, Pitfalls, and Prospects, 49 App. Psychol.: Int’l Rev. 62, 81 (2000); Adair & Brett, supra note 7, at 159-60.

[12] See Adair & Brett, supra note 7, at 160-61.

[13] Xiao-Ping Chen & Shu Li, Cross-National Differences in Cooperative Decision-Making in Mixed-Motive Business Contexts: The Mediating Effect of Vertical and Horizontal Individualism, 36 J. Int’l Bus. Stud. 622, 624 (2005); at 624; Rosette et al., supra note 4, at 8.

[14] Chen & Li, supra note 13, at 624 (discussing a series of studies conducted by researcher Toshio Yamagishi).

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