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The Real Deal, or Learning the Meaning of “Yes”


All politics are local, goes the saying, and so is the art of deal making: “Yes” is said different in every language. More importantly, it may mean many different things according to context. It may even mean “No.” In a lively article for the Harvard Business Review, Erin Meyer says that animated opposition while negotiating with Israelis or French may actually mean the beginning of a fantastic deal. And conversely, an emotionless encounter with Swedes should not be a cause for concern. But you should become vigilant if a Mexican or a Peruvian is hinting mildly and with moderation some discrepancy. It may actually the tip of the iceberg, or a very significant disagreement. And “Yes” sometimes is a courteous word for “No” in some cultures, which find it rude to use especially when dealing with foreigners, but hint at it indirectly. So, short of a cultural sensitivity crash course if you have to close the deal across a number of seas and time zones, here are five tips:


  1. Adapt the way you express disagreement.
  2. Know when to hold it or let it out.
  3. Build trust.
  4. Avoid yes-or-no questions.
  5. Beware the writing: it may be offensive in some cultures.


According to a story that circulated in Brussels a few decades ago, a meeting between a delegation from a warmer European country and a colder one had soured. The chair, who came from the sunnier part of the continent, suggested to lighten things up by discussing “women.” He invited his counterpart from the land of longer winters shared his thoughts, as he surely was an expert, given the number of times he had been married. The other delegation was flabbergasted, and sent a formal complaint. There is a matter of taste and commonsense, obviously. Which is why we add a sixth tip: a sense of humor (or lack thereof) is local, too, perhaps more so than politics. So you can hold on to that joke until you get home, with the deal closed, luckily.


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