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Pashtun Traditions versus Western Perceptions

Leo Karrer

2. Cross-Cultural Negotiation and Communication Theories

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1Having raised the question of the relevance of the cross-cultural problematic in negotiation interactions between Afghans and foreigners, it is necessary to review some of the relevant academic literature. Cross-cultural negotiation is now an established topic in academia, a fact that owes much to the phenomenon of globalisation. The application of these academic insights to Afghanistan, however, has yet to be systematically attempted. The reasons for this omission may perhaps be attributed to the difficulties in conducting fieldwork in a rather turbulent environment. That said, as the literature primarily approaches cross-cultural negotiation from a highly subjective (i.e. US/Western) standpoint, and in terms of a very simplistic them and us dichotomy, fieldwork in each candidate context is not required. Rather than striving for specificity, most theories classify cultures into (one of two) different categories in an effort to render the enormous cultural complexity of the world more intelligible. This simplification may prove to be necessary, but is often made to the detriment of a more nuanced, differentiated view. The Afghan reality, for instance, with all its complexity, certainly transcends such dichotomous categorisation, as will be shown in Chapters 3 and 4.

2.1. High-context vs. Low-context Cultures

2In 1976, American anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed a means of comparing cultures on a scale from high- to low-context. This scale rests on distinct parameters designed to give high or low weight to the context in which substantive verbal information is transmitted (or omitted). In high-context cultures, much of the meaning of a verbal statement is defined by the circumstances in which it is issued, such as non-verbal communication, the moment in time when a message is conveyed, or the intonation of the voice. Indirect allusions and subtext are highly significant in high-context cultures. Saving face, moreover, is a much stronger feature of high-context than low-context cultures. As stated by Brett,‘in high-context cultures little information is in the message itself. Instead, the context of the communication stimulates pre-existing knowledge in the receiver. In high context cultures, meaning is inferred rather than directly interpreted from the communication’ (2000, 101). In contrast, ideal-typical low-context cultures ostensible exhibit all the opposite characteristics. In these cultures, the message conveyed by a verbal declaration is strictly dependent on its semantic value, with virtually no room for contextual hermeneutical interpretation. Such cultures have relatively little leeway for differentiating between absolute and intended meaning. To borrow the terms of the structuralism inspired by Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1916) – though reversing the theoretical argument – in low-context cultures the signified  (signifié) must derive exactly from the signifier  (signifiant). Another (imperfect) illustration of the concept of high- and low-context cultures may be drawn from the contradiction between the two major works of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Whereas in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921) Wittgenstein emphasises the mathematical absoluteness of formal communication (low-context), he later refutes his own theory in the Philosophical Investigations (1953) which holds that the meaning of a word necessarily depends on its use (high-context). Wittgenstein acknowledges the importance of context and implicitness when he states that ‘the aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity’ (1953, 129). High-context cultures may be understood as more implicit in so far as the meaning of what is communicated is inaccessible, a priori,  to the cultural outsider.

2.2. Direct vs. Indirect Communication Styles

3This distinction is similar to the above-mentioned ‘low- and high-context cultures’, where high-context societies exhibit a rather indirect communication style. Various misunderstandings and hasty judgments made of the other by negotiation partners from different cultural backgrounds are the most important consequences of this phenomenon. People from ‘direct cultures’ will find those from an ‘indirect culture’ to be evasive, dishonest and ‘too cowardly to take a stand’. Conversely, people from a ‘high-context culture’ will perceive direct communicators as impolite, insensitive, rude and tactless. Each will accuse the other of jeopardising any given agreement due to the discrepancy in negotiation (communication) styles.

2.3. Polychronic vs. Monochronic Concepts of Time

4Another – closely related – binary classification of cultures is derived from an evaluation of the role of time in human interaction. Edward T. Hall distinguishes ‘monochronic’ from ‘polychronic’ cultures (1959). In monochronic cultures time, is regimented and schedules are given great weight. This rigid perception of time means that time constraints, perceived as inflexible, often override interpersonal concerns. The time reserved for personal and professional interaction is strictly separated, and one task is handled at a time. Under polychronic time, in contrast, several issues, private and personal, may take place along parallel time lines. Interpersonal relations govern the way time is ‘spent’. Schedules are not followed closely and there is generally ‘more time’ left.

2.4. Individualism vs. Collectivism

5The distinction between individualism and collectivism refers to the extent to which a society is designed around the absolute autonomy of the individual, with corresponding maximal personal freedom and absence of social coercion. Collectivist societies emphasise interdependence and social obligations, whereas individualist societies try to minimise duties. Generally, individualism is associated with ‘monochronic’, ‘low-context’ cultures, and collectivism with ‘polychronic’ and ‘high-context’ cultures (Cohen, 1991). With regard to negotiation, researchers believe that negotiators embedded in an individualist society, ‘because of their strong self-interest, set high personal goals in negotiation […]’, leading them to ‘reject acceptable, but suboptimal, agreements and to continue to search among alternative possible agreements for one that best meets the individualists’ self-interests’ (Cohen, 1991).

2.5. Egalitarian vs. Hierarchical Societies

6Variation in the power structures underlying different cultures is yet another distinction relevant to negotiation style. The distinction between egalitarian and hierarchical societies requires some nuance, as it is unlikely a truly egalitarian society ‘really’ exists. Rather than categorising the ‘true’ nature of a particular culture, this distinction highlights the way power is perceived (Brett and Okamura, 1998, 497).  Generally, though hierarchical aspects clear exist, Western cultures are regarded as ‘egalitarian’. In more hierarchical societies, the power of a negotiator is tightly linked to his (or her) social status, while in ostensibly egalitarian cultures, negotiating power is dependent on the best alternative to the negotiated agreement (BATNA) (Brett and Okamura, 1998, 497). Another important feature of negotiation in hierarchical societies is the chain of authority an agreement must traverse in order to be approved, as, typically, lower-ranking officials have little autonomy. As a result, negotiation becomes a highly time-consuming process in which each and every detail is subject to approval by the highest authority at the top of a rigid social pyramid.


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