Most people are probably fed up hearing about the political and economic arguments around Brexit, but the cultural aspect has been much less examined.
The vote to leave the European Union exposed deep cultural fault-lines in British society: between North and South, between Scotland and England, between ‘Puritans’ and ‘Cavaliers’, between classes, between young and old.
The original result of the referendum could, however, be interpreted as a predictable outcome of the cultural divide between British pragmatism and continental idealism. As a nation we tend to mistrust Utopias. Although Utopia was written by a Brit – Sir Thomas More – he was a ‘Remainer’ Catholic, rejecting the Reformation – itself a rejection of European papal rule – and was beheaded by ‘Brexiteer’ Henry VIII for publicly refusing to uphold Henry’s annulment from Catherine of Aragon.
The Irish have always leaned intellectually more towards Continental Europe and idealism. ‘They order, said I, this matter better in France’ as Laurence Sterne began his Sentimental Journey. And remember Irish-born Oscar Wilde’s assertion that ‘a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at…’
By contrast, British preference of the concrete over the ideal is well-illustrated in Dr. Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkeley, the Anglo-Irish philosopher.
came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop
Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that
every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are
satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never
shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with
mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it
From the point of view of negotiation, the main fault-line has been between Anglo-Saxon pragmatism and French Cartesian logic. French school children are taught to construct essays in a style based on Descartes’ Discourse on Method, with a thesis, antithesis and synthesis structure. When it comes to negotiation, the French and the British are worlds apart – as has been well-described in the Spectator by Robert Tombs, a Cambridge professor specialising in French history https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/10/michel-barniers-arrogant-inflexibility-over-brexit-comes-from-a-long-gallic-tradition/
Where, for the French – in Tombs’ words – negotiation is about adopting a logically coherent set of principles and defending them rigidly, for the British it tends to be an experimental process to discover a mutually acceptable deal.
Cartesian logic is constructed on a premise which is ‘indubitably true’. Where the British joined the Common Market largely for pragmatic reasons of trading, the founding principle of the EU was the Utopian premise of closer and closer union, an underlying principle which may not have been as ‘indubitably true’ for the British who imagined that adjustments, compromises and opt-outs could be dealt with along the way.
I remember a French participant on one of my workshops exclaiming ‘Well, it may work in practice… but does it work in theory?’
What does this teach us about cross-cultural negotiation in general? How can it help in HR, as our organisations become more global, and we must increasingly negotiate with employees from different cultures about their roles, remuneration etc.?
The key is to:
- Examine our own premises, interests and style of argumentation more thoroughly. For instance, we may assume that our own pragmatic, common sense approach and openness to adjustment and compromises later is simply ‘normal’ and how things are done. We may not even be aware of our own approach and how odd it may appear to others.
- Try and enter the mental world of the other party, project ourselves into it imaginatively and ‘think their thoughts.’ It’s a process which the Cambridge Emeritus Professor in Philosophy, Jane Heal, calls ‘co-cognition’
- Try and ‘frame’ arguments in ways that are familiar to the other party. So, if trying to convince the French, think of logical ways of putting forward points of view. With Russians, be forceful and personal. With Indians, emphasise the relationship; with Americans use time and money arguments; with the Japanese, emphasise harmony – and take your time.
Above all listen and try to understand, then ask the question ‘why?’ in order to dig out the real interests of the other party. Don’t let negotiation become a ‘dialogue of the deaf’, as Tombs describes the meetings between the UK and the EU.
Michael Gates Vice Chairman of Richard Lewis Communications