Doing Business in the Middle East
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Organizations Strategy Sep 2, 2013

Doing Busi­ness in the Mid­dle East

Amer­i­cans and Mid­dle East­ern­ers approach nego­ti­a­tions differently

Based on the research of

Soroush Aslani

Jeanne M. Brett

Jimena Y. Ramirez-Marin

Catherine H. Tinsley

Laurie R. Weingart

The strate­gies peo­ple use to nego­ti­ate dif­fer cross-cul­tur­al­ly. But while sub­stan­tial research describes how nego­ti­a­tion strat­e­gy is used in West­ern and East Asian cul­tures, the same can­not be said of Mid­dle East­ern cultures.

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Despite its thou­sands of years of his­to­ry at the cross­roads of trade between the East and the West — and its oil resources upon which both East­ern and West­ern economies depend — the Mid­dle East is seri­ous­ly under­stud­ied by nego­ti­a­tion schol­ars, explains Jeanne Brett, a pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions at the Kel­logg School of Man­age­ment who has stud­ied cul­ture and nego­ti­a­tion for years. So in 2010, Brett and Soroush Aslani, a doc­tor­al can­di­date at the Kel­logg School, put togeth­er a team of schol­ars to zero in the Mid­dle East.

Nego­ti­a­tion in Dig­ni­ty and Hon­or Cul­tures

Aslani sus­pect­ed that a the­o­ry of hon­or cul­ture could be used to pre­dict dif­fer­ences in how Mid­dle East­ern­ers and Amer­i­cans would use nego­ti­a­tion strat­e­gy. A key point in this the­o­ry — which cul­tur­al psy­chol­o­gist Richard Nis­bett has used to explain how men from north­ern and south­ern regions of the U.S. respond dif­fer­ent­ly to insults — is the idea of self-worth.

The U.S., for instance, tends to be what anthro­pol­o­gists call a dig­ni­ty cul­ture.” This is because self-worth reflects social sta­tus, which is con­struct­ed and main­tained some­what inde­pen­dent­ly from the social inter­ac­tions in which an indi­vid­ual is involved. Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries, on the oth­er hand, are described has hav­ing hon­or cul­tures” because self-worth reflects a social sta­tus acquired through social inter­ac­tions. Peo­ple com­pete for pri­ma­cy, some­times by try­ing to pro­tect them­selves and their fam­i­lies from being tak­en advan­tage of, and oth­er times by being gen­er­ous and devel­op­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for warmth and hospitality.

Under­stand­ing a culture’s sense of self-worth mat­ters when nego­ti­at­ing new busi­ness rela­tion­ships, the researchers argue, because Mid­dle East­ern­ers are more like­ly than Amer­i­cans to approach the nego­ti­a­tion as a com­pe­ti­tion — and thus an oppor­tu­ni­ty to estab­lish and pro­tect hon­or. But Amer­i­cans, for whom dig­ni­ty should be lit­tle affect­ed by the out­come, are more like­ly than Mid­dle East­ern­ers to approach the nego­ti­a­tion as a puz­zle in need of a solution.

To inves­ti­gate their ideas, the researchers designed a sim­u­la­tion in which pairs of par­tic­i­pants take the role of busi­ness own­ers who are nego­ti­at­ing about shar­ing space to expand their respec­tive busi­ness­es. The goal: to set terms for the use of the space, includ­ing ques­tions of staffing, tem­per­a­ture con­trol, and the hir­ing of a fam­i­ly mem­ber to build a joint web­site. Six­ty-three pairs of Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ty stu­dents and 68 pairs of stu­dents at a top uni­ver­si­ty in Qatar nego­ti­at­ed the sim­u­la­tion, each par­tic­i­pant earn­ing points” if he could nego­ti­ate terms favor­able to his own busi­ness. (Encoun­ters were record­ed so that researchers could count the num­ber of times cer­tain nego­ti­a­tion tech­niques were used.) After­wards, the stu­dents filled out ques­tion­naires about the experience.

Cul­tur­al Dif­fer­ences Emerge

What the researchers found as they ana­lyzed the data was that there were indeed sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in how Amer­i­can and Mid­dle East­ern nego­tia­tors used strat­e­gy. The Qataris were much more com­pet­i­tive than were the Amer­i­cans, set­ting high­er aspi­ra­tions while prepar­ing for the nego­ti­a­tion — just as pre­dict­ed, giv­en the extent to which hon­or cul­tures val­ue pre­serv­ing social sta­tus and appear­ing firm.

In Mid­dle East­ern cul­ture, trust is a com­mod­i­ty you have to earn through repeat­ed social inter­ac­tions.” — Soroush Aslani

Anoth­er major dif­fer­ence con­sis­tent with the researchers’ pre­dic­tions was that Amer­i­cans tend­ed to exchange infor­ma­tion more open­ly with each oth­er, try­ing to make clear their needs, while Qataris shared much less infor­ma­tion. This may be due to dif­fer­ing lev­els of trust in nego­ti­a­tions in dig­ni­ty ver­sus hon­or cul­tures, says Aslani. There is a notion in West­ern cul­ture called swift trust: when first inter­act­ing, peo­ple trust each oth­er, unless their coun­ter­part proves to be untrust­wor­thy,” he explains. In Mid­dle East­ern cul­ture, trust is a com­mod­i­ty you have to earn through repeat­ed social inter­ac­tions. So when inter­act­ing for the first time, usu­al­ly the Mid­dle Easterner’s assump­tion is I’d bet­ter not trust you too much, until you prove your­self trustworthy.’”

The researchers also found that the Qataris were more like­ly than the Amer­i­cans to use emo­tion­al tac­tics — such as show­ing anger, frus­tra­tion, or sym­pa­thy — to influ­ence the out­come of the nego­ti­a­tion. Peo­ple in hon­or cul­tures have strong norms for hos­pi­tal­i­ty and warmth, but in a com­pet­i­tive sit­u­a­tion like nego­ti­a­tions, in which their self-worth could be threat­ened, they are more inclined to get emo­tion­al and use aggres­sive nego­ti­a­tion tac­tics than Amer­i­cans,” Aslani explains.

More­over, the Qataris con­sid­ered the hir­ing of a broth­er in the joint busi­ness more impor­tant than the Amer­i­cans did — per­haps reflect­ing the focus on fam­i­ly that is more char­ac­ter­is­tic of hon­or culture.

Forg­ing Sus­tain­able Rela­tion­ships

Brett cau­tions that there is still much to learn about how Mid­dle East­ern­ers nego­ti­ate dif­fer­ent­ly from Amer­i­cans. Yet, she says, it would be use­ful for Amer­i­can man­agers nego­ti­at­ing new busi­ness rela­tion­ships in the Mid­dle East to keep in mind that their Mid­dle East­ern coun­ter­parts are very like­ly to approach the nego­ti­a­tion as a con­test to be won via emo­tion­al tac­tics, not a prob­lem to be solved via trust and infor­ma­tion shar­ing. Aslani, who is Iran­ian, adds that in order to build sus­tain­able cross-cul­tur­al rela­tion­ships between the West and the Mid­dle East, peo­ple should try to first build strong rela­tion­ships based on mutu­al trust before mov­ing to the details of the negotiation.”

Editor’s Note: An inter­im paper from this research project was a final­ist for the Acad­e­my of Management’s pres­ti­gious 2012 Dex­ter Prize for research on inter­na­tion­al issues.

Featured Faculty

Soroush Aslani

Lecturer in the Department of Management & Organizations department until 2014

Jeanne M. Brett

DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr., Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations; Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Research

Aslani, Soroush, Jeanne M. Brett, Jimena Y. Ramirez-Marin, Catherine H. Tinsley, and Laurie R. Weingart. 2012. “Implications of Honor and Dignity Culture for Negotiations: A Comparative Study of Middle Easterners and Americans.” Academy of Management Annual Meeting. Boston, MA.

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