21st-Century Dealmakers: Negotiating with Americans

In the 21st-Century Dealmakers series, we explore various topics of interest to corporate and transactional attorneys living outside the United States.

The cultural backgrounds of parties play a critical role in negotiations, especially because negotiations are heavily influenced by emotion and interpersonal dynamics. Knowing what to expect from American negotiators can greatly influence the outcome of your negotiation. Below are tips that will help non-U.S. lawyers begin to navigate the process of negotiating with Americans.

The Basics

Greetings: For many, the basics of an American business greeting are well known. For those who are unaware, however, we offer this advice: First, shake hands firmly. Do not grip hard, as if to display physical strength, but solidly, to show confidence. Give your name (first and last name are acceptable; just your first name is also fine) and repeat theirs. Brief eye contact is good as it communicates trustworthiness.

Personal space: Americans enjoy having a bit of personal space. The distance of a handshake is generally close enough. Hugging and cheek kissing are not advised.

Time: Americans expect punctuality, so be on time for meetings. A delay of five or 10 minutes will be forgiven but will still be seen in an unpleasant light.

Dress: Attorneys generally wear suits and men wear ties when meeting with opposing counsel. In formal settings, jackets will stay on, but in lengthy negotiations, they may be removed. Follow the lead of your hosts.

Other topics for discussion: When you aren’t discussing the business at hand, you may chat informally. This is known as “small talk.” Do not discuss religion, politics, age, income, marital status and other possibly controversial topics. Small talk should be focused on fairly neutral issues, like travel, business and sports, unless your counterparts open up other topics and are in good spirits. Then, joking around is okay, but tread cautiously. Better to be thought a bit conservative than to unintentionally give offense.

Negotiating

Be direct: Don’t talk around your points and expect Americans to read between the lines. Be respectful, but direct. If your client can’t agree to certain stipulations for whatever understandable reason, it is acceptable to say so. As long as your negotiating positions are grounded in operational facts, Americans will generally respect them.

The opening offer: An American’s first offer is usually extreme, but will soften over the course of negotiations. Usually, an American lawyer’s opening position will be higher than the resulting compromise position (e.g., if they open at $100, and you think $75 is the right number, you should open at $50). Expect resistance in the beginning, as American’s don’t want to seem easily persuaded, but in a productive negotiation you can expect reasonable concessions as the conversation continues. Americans are typically considered to be practical, and they have an incentive to get the deal done efficiently.

Americans don’t want long, drawn-out negotiations: If you are patient and even if you are silent at times, Americans may soften their position. They generally do not want a business negotiation to be dragged out without consistent progress. Getting things done quickly is desirable to attorneys in the United States.

Interruption is common: Expect to be interrupted frequently. It is a sign of engagement in negotiations and is generally not a sign of disrespect. Instead, it is a tactic often used in an attempt to dominate negotiations and wear down the other side.

While the conventions of U.S. negotiations may seem foreign, it is a process that all successful lawyers who work with American clients must become familiar with. It is for this reason that the @WashULaw LL.M. in U.S. Law curriculum includes a unit on negotiation in which students learn how to broker sales contracts, establish attorney-client retainers and settle multi-party disputes through simulations with classmates.