Negotiation 101: A Cross-Cultural Case Study

By Hannah Lee

How much you know about yourself counts as much as how much you know about your opposing partner at the negotiating table, said the much-loved and much-lauded Professor Emeritus of Engineering Barrett Hazeltine in a presentation on Sunday for the Brown Alumni Club of Philadelphia at Bryn Mawr College. The case study he presented was the on-going negotiation between Google and the government of China, which began in 2005. What I learned was far more applicable to me in my personal relationships.

Plan before hand, said the Professor, and know what you want. In Google’s case, the goals range from: providing users high-speed access to information, earning profit, and enhancing its reputation, i.e., promoting itself as the search engine of choice. Google’s mission used to be, “Do no evil,” but, noted the Professor, the company no longer touts its ethical origins while pursuing profit.

The government of China, in contrast, wants to protect its own Internet search company, Baidu [ranked #4 in the world in 2006 after Google, #3, MSN, #2, and Yahoo, #1]. It faces a brain drain of scientific and technological expertise, and wants “the sea turtles to come home.” While China wants access to cutting-edge technology, it also wants to set limits on Internet use to maintain its political power.

Next, you have to understand the other side, taught Dr. Hazeltine, who began teaching at Brown in 1959 and won the Senior Class award for teaching for 13 consecutive years until it was named in his honor in 1985. The Google negotiators had difficulty interpreting the cross-cultural signals. Chinese protocol prohibits saying no or making other strong statements. To save face, a Chinese negotiator may nod, but the gesture does not reflect consent.

“Process” is also different for Chinese bureaucrats than for American technocrats.  Consensus is often arranged beforehand, or behind the scenes. The Chinese tend to look at the whole picture while Americans tend to deal with line-by-line details. Google has learned to unbundle issues and make multiple product offers, each “a whole picture” by itself.

During the negotiations, you must build trust and listen to the other side, expounded Professor Hazeltine, who now has 577 students– almost 1/10 of the undergraduates– enrolled in his popular ENGN 9 course, Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations. “We’re born with two ears and one mouth for a good reason”– we should listen more than we speak. In Google’s discussions with the Chinese, informal meetings are crucial in building trust.

Be patient, advised the Professor, and be ready for post-settlement deals. In 2010, Google protested Chinese censorship of its search engine and moved operations to Hong Kong. Last week, Google and all of its major services were blocked in China on Friday, as the Communist Party met to appoint new leaders for the first time in a decade. The case is not closed yet.

One interesting tip from the audience came from an alumna who has found it useful to invent a hierarchy, even when she has the ultimate authority to make a decision, because she wanted more time to consider her options. This I later learned was an example of a classic negotiation tactic called “agent with limited authority,” in which the limits can be real or assumed.  With my children, I’ve given them carte blanche to label me the “bad cop,” when they need an excuse to fend off peer pressure.

Another audience member suggested a major difference between the Americans and the Chinese is the concept of time. Yes, agreed the Professor, citing the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 that ended the Vietnam War– the Americans reserved hotel rooms for the negotiations, while the Vietnamese bought real estate.

Professor Hazeltine’s newest course in social entrepreneurship and appropriate technologies stems from his years teaching consulting in Botswana, Malawi, and Zambia.

Another personal lesson came after the official presentation, when my husband and I met another inter-racial couple and we shared with each other the pitfalls of misunderstanding each other’s cultural cues. Marriage is comparable to business and international diplomacy, in which the two partners may come from different backgrounds and they have to find common ground and a common language to express their goals. Learning Professor Hazeltine’s strategies for negotiation may even help strengthen your marriage, but hopefully you’ll fare better than Google has in its relations with China.

Talkback on Asian American Films

The fourth Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival ended on November 6th with the local premier of Almost Perfect, directed by Bertha Bay-Sa Pan (also writer/director/producer of the 2002 drama Face).  The screening at the Ibrahim Theater at International House at the University of Pennsylvania campus was followed by a lavish dinner reception.   Billed as a romantic comedy, Almost Perfect depicts a successful Chinese career woman who finally meets her perfect soulmate  but her budding relationship is highjacked by her dysfunctional family.  It stars Kelly Hu (X-Men 2), Edison Chen (Infernal Affairs), Roger Rees (The Prestige), Tina Chen (Golden Globe Nominee), and Ivan Shaw (CSI: New York).

Mayor Michael Nutter introduced the evening and it was followed by a talkback session, attended by the director, actors Tina Chen and Alice Callahan (Gossip Girls), producer Jim Chu, production designer Wing Lee, and art director Cherie Kroll.  Director Pan was asked why a romantic comedy and she said that American cinema do not represent the full gamut of Asian human experience (producer Chu quipped that it has not documented that Asians do fall in love).  An audience member asked if the script was a comment on inter-racial marriages  (Tina Chen’s character is unhappily married to Roger Rees’s character, although only one of their three movie children looks bi-racial).  Pan said no, but she’d casted her high school friend Christina Chang as the fashion designer daughter and is of a Chinese-Caucasian blend.  Note: Fashion product placement occurred in the wearing of a Brown University shirt (the slacker brother and the best friend/male lead are alumni) and the frugal use of the Thuy clothing line as exhibited by the fashion designer sister.  Pan had gotten lots of flak from the Asian American community for casting a black love interest in Face, and she didn’t dare do so for the romantic leads in this movie.

Chen was asked how to promote more Asian American films and she said it happens at the box office, where movie studios comprehend that there is an audience for films about and starring Asian Americans.  Production Designer Lee got all choked up about the satisfaction of finally working on a production with a mostly Chinese cast and crew.  An audience member praised the apartment setting of the female lead, as her various family members barge in and storm out— it was entirely built on a sound stage by Lee and his crew.  Callahan in a minor role as Shop Girl spoke about how one small scene illustrated the father character, as a womanizer who was experiencing a mid-life crisis as a ship designer facing retirement.  Chen was asked how did she get into the role of the repressed, distressed art professor mother (being a fun, happily married woman) and she quoted her acting mentor who’d taught that they have to be true to the character, to live within the emotional landscape of the person being portrayed.  Pan was bestowed the Emerging Director Award, but she noted that she’s been emerging for 15 years already.