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Pashtun Traditions versus Western Perceptions

Leo Karrer

4. During Negotiation: The Application of Cross-Cultural Negotiation Parameters to Afghanistan

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  • 1  Argentina; Brazil; China; France; Germany; India; Japan; Mexico; Nigeria; Spain; USA; UK.

1In the survey, 13 of 17 respondents indicated they believe cultural factors play a very important role when it comes to negotiating in Afghanistan. In a 1998 research report, Jeswald W. Salacuse surveyed 310 persons of twelve different nationalities.1 In his survey, Salacuse evaluated ten previously-identified (1993), culturally-influenced factors relevant to negotiation. Again, each of these factors is comprised of a binary pair representing two extremes of a particular characteristic. In this model, different cultures vary across a spectrum defined by this bipolarity.

2These factors are:
1. negotiating goals (contract or relationship?);
2. attitude toward the negotiating process (win/win or win/lose?);
3. personal styles (formal or informal?);
4. style of communication (direct or indirect?);
5. sensitivity to time (high or low?);
6. emotionalism (high or low?);
7. agreement form (specific or general?);
8. agreement building process (bottom up or top down?);
9. organisation of the negotiating team (one leader or consensus?); and
10. predisposition to risk taking (high or low?).

  • 2  The majority of respondents were Western citizens, although some had emigrated to the West from el (...)

3The study’s results were obtained by ranking the countries according to a percentage of answers corresponding to one extreme or the other. Of course, in doing so, this method equates cultures with countries, which can be a dangerous generalisation. (India, for instance, is treated as a single culture). Another important methodological limitation lies in the closed character of the questions, as respondents were asked to answer by selecting one of only two statements. Despite these shortcomings, however, the ten factors may be understood to represent valuable parameters of cross-cultural negotiation interaction. Salacuse’s factors were included in the present study’s survey concerning Afghanistan, but, as previously mentioned, the number of respondents (n = 17) is far too low to generate statistically significant results. In an attempt to generate greater nuance, the survey offered the possibility of answering questions on a scale from one to five, where one = ‘much more direct communication’ and five = ‘much more indirect communication’. The calculation of mean values from the scaled, numerical answers yielded only minor differences, with almost all results ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 While the survey was not intended to reveal statistically significant results, it nevertheless was successful in identifying some trends. As the value attributed to one parameter or the other is highly susceptible to subjective interpretation, each question was asked twice: 1) How do you see Afghans’ attitude towards the parameter?; and 2) How do you perceive the corresponding attitude of yourself or your own society? This allows for foreigners’ perceptions of Afghans to contrast with how foreigners perceive themselves and/or their own culture.2 The following paragraphs apply Salacuse’s parameters to the Afghan context, utilising some of the survey results.

4.1. Goal of Negotiation: Contract vs. Relationship

4It is a common assumption that in low-context (direct, individualist and monochronic) cultures, a great deal of emphasis is placed on obtaining palpable (i.e. written) agreements, whereas in high-context (indirect, collectivist and polychronic) cultures, creating (long-term) relationships is the priority. Middle Eastern, and Islamic cultures more generally, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, are consistently regarded as high-context societies (Ahmad, 2008). As a consequence, one would expect Afghans to demonstrate a clear preference for relationship building over formal agreements.

5In the survey sent to foreigners working in Afghanistan, however, no such tendency could be identified. Out of the 17 respondents, six understood Afghans to be as contract-oriented as foreigners, six stated that foreigners are more contract-oriented, and five found Afghans more contract-oriented than foreigners. On a scale from one (very contract-oriented) to five (very relationship-oriented), the mean value for Afghans (as seen by the expatriates) was 2.88. The mean value of foreigners self-assessment in this regard was 2.94.

  • 3  Pathans is the name commonly given to both the Pakistani and Afghan Pashtuns. It was mainly used b (...)

6At first glance, these are non-interpretable results, as the answer lies in between. The interest in this finding, however, lies more in the extent to which they contradict common assumptions than their exact numerical value. There are several possible explanations for this deviation from expectations. First, there is a well-established tradition of binding agreements in Afghan society, which can be traced to the Pashtun jirga tradition (see section 1.3). Pashtunwali incorporates the notion of jaba (or zhaba; ژبه),term meaning ‘language’, or ‘tongue’, which may also be translated as ‘absolutely binding agreement or promise’. Not complying with jaba bears nagha (ناغه), a fine levied on an offender according to customary law (نرخ; narkh). ‘A tribal man is very faithful in fulfilling jaba no matter how much loss he may incur. Pathans 3 say Jaba is sacred […]’ (, 2011). This indicates Pashtun society is not easily accounted for by narrow(Western) categorisations, and that a relatively indirect communication style does not necessarily imply a lack of regard for explicit contracts.

  • 4  Regarding the phenomenon of mutual imitation, the Swiss anthropologists Pierre and Micheline Centl (...)

7An alternative explanation of these results could be found in the propensity of (some) Afghans and foreigners toward mimicry of the other4 – a very common phenomenon, which likely also accounts for some additional results yet to be discussed. This mutual adaption may, to an extent, be attributed to well-intended ingratiation. Another explanation, however, could be that in the face of relatively rapid turnover in foreign negotiation partners, Afghans have adapted their negotiation preferences toward obtaining palpable agreements rather than fruitlessly spending time building a relationship unlikely to last longer than the one-or-two-year duty of their expatriate interlocutor. As observed by Schaffer and Schaffer ‘…[They] have the sense that the United States is looking for a flirtation rather than a nikah [a marriage contract]. This paradoxically reinforces [their] tendency to look for short-term gains’ (2011, 41). This suggests that in Pashtun perception, contrary to the aforementioned commonplace, it is the Westerners who are more oriented towards a relationship (i.e. a flirtation), than a contract (i.e. marriage).

4.2. Attitudes toward the Negotiating Process: Win/win vs. Win/lose

8The survey results gathered in response to this question are interesting, as they also refute the common assumptions as to Western and Afghan attitudes toward negotiation. Western – and especially North American – (i.e. low-context) negotiators are commonly expected to apply a win-lose frame, in an almost Pavlovian manner, to negotiation, even if they are fully aware that the two parties’ interests are not diametrically opposed (Pinkey and Northcraft, 1994).  In contrast, it is assumed that ‘[negotiators] from high-context cultures place more interest on win-win solutions because these cultures are more relationship oriented, […]’ (Chaisrakeo and Speece, 2004, 271). This somewhat generalised view has not been demonstrated as applicable to Afghanistan.

  • 5  In absolute terms, nine out of 17 found Afghans ‘win-lose’, and four found Afghans to be more ‘win (...)

9Indeed, ten of 17 respondents indicated that they experience Afghans as having more of a win-lose attitude toward negotiation in comparison with foreigners, with only one person finding the opposite to be true and six indicating that the attitudes of both foreigners and Afghans were about the same.5 In terms of mean value, on a scale ranging from one (‘mostly win-lose’) to five (‘mostly win-win’), foreigners scored 1.0 point closer to a ‘win-win’ attitude (3.58 vs. 2.58).

  • 6  Due to the small sample, the term ‘trend’ here claims no statistical sense.

10Any conjectures as to the reasons behind this trend6 must take into account the profiles of interviewees. Most civilian foreigners in Afghanistan are employed by non-profit organisations that aim to bring relief or development to the Afghan population. It is not particularly surprising that they consider themselves to be ‘win-win’ oriented. Afghans might be perceived as more ‘win-lose’-oriented for a variety of reasons. First, the on-going violence and dire needs of the population may trigger a preference for rapid, maximal gain, as nobody knows when the injection of foreign cash might leave. Second, in terms of finances, the sums spent by the international community are so enormous (including private expenditures for apparently indispensible items such as imported corn flakes and spaghetti sauce,) and their salaries so high, that most Afghans do not believe foreigners would really suffer a ‘loss’ in a purportedly detrimental outcome. This perception may lead to an erosion of the Afghans’ cultural inhibitions against the pursuit of maximal profit, regardless of the other party’s losses.

11These explanations are, of course, speculative. There is, however, a more fundamental aspect of Pashtun/Afghan society that may be relevant to the discussion at hand. A special form of enmity, referred to as tarborgalwi (تربورګلوي), exists among Pashtuns. The original meaning of the term is ‘cousinhood’, but the more common meaning is ‘rivalry, hostility’. This close link between kinship and hostility may stem from the inheritance conflicts arising from the lack of primogeniture in Islamic civilisation. There is a strong sense of competition pervading Afghan society, possibly derived from cousin rivalry, but not necessarily confined to people of the same kin. For instance,

‘[there] being a pro-Karzai and an anti-Karzai camp among the Pashtuns is part of the binary logic […] of segmentary societies. This concept is intimately linked to the notions of status envy (siyali) and tarborwali7 (cousin rivalry). Any perceived advantage for a peer will normally be challenged’ (Naumann, 2009, vi).

12A possible link may be drawn between competition and the Pashtun precept of tura(توره). This word literally means ‘sword’, but by extension denotes the demand for bravery (Rzehak, 2011, 10). As argued by Naumann, ‘collective paranoia is further spurred by the inherent competitive predisposition, especially of young Pashtun males who still have to prove themselves as turialai […]’ (2009, 132). As such competitive rivalry often leads to bloodshed (مړینه; mrrina), it brings about an outcome that can readily be qualified as ‘win-lose’ (or ‘lose-lose’). Overall, however tentative such explanations may appear, it should be noted that certain generalisations (e.g. high context=‘win-win’) seem to be refuted.

4.3. Formal vs. Informal Style

  • 8  This would need further differentiation as, for example, Americans are generally considered more i (...)

13Answers to the question of whether Afghans are perceived as formal or informal in their negotiation were less striking. A portion of respondents (seven out of 17) found Afghans to be more formal than their own culture, whereas a majority found them to be equally (six) or less (four) formal.8  Of course, in a high-context culture, one expects to encounter a quite formal communication style. Once again, however, generalisations of this nature regarding Afghanistan should be avoided. First, people from remote, rural areas are, logically, more mistrustful of strangers and hence more formal than those from urban areas (i.e. they preserve their high-context culture). Secondly, younger people who have had regular contacts with foreigners, especially Americans, tend to emulate a rather informal style, which they perceive to be suitable for all ‘Westerners’. Such youths can sometimes even shock foreigners with their uninhibited communication style. Finally, these results are likely biased by the subjective understandings held by the respondents as to the precise meaning of ‘formal’.

4.4. Direct vs. Indirect Communication

14With respect to communication style, a clear majority of respondents (twelve of 17) found Afghans to be more indirect than themselves. This is consistent with what is commonly assumed to be the hallmark of high-context communication. Circumlocutions are often used to avoid naming problems directly, and it is not acceptable to deny a request, even if what is demanded cannot be fulfilled. Such divergence in communication style may lead to the misperceptions mentioned above (see section 3). With regard to any potential resentment arising resulting from foreigners’ overly-direct communication style, however, only one person of 16 felt his own frankness often led to irritation on the part of Afghans. This result may reflect the indirect, ‘high-context’ communication style likely to conceal Afghans’ irritation from foreigners.

4.5. High vs. Low Time-Sensitivity

15Time-sensitivity refers to culturally predominant attitudes toward time. High time-sensitivity implies the strict observance of schedules and timetables, in a fashion similar to the abovementioned ‘poly-’ vs. ‘monochronic’ attitude toward time. Afghanistan is generally characterised as a ‘polychronic culture’, with less emphasis on time as a quantifiable and allocable factor. In the author’s experience, this is generally true, although there seems to be a gradient from rural (lower time-sensitivity) to urban (higher time-sensitivity) people. Many Afghans have a low time-sensitivity, but modern (or, at least, urban) life is encouraging the adoption of a Western attitude towards time, notably schedules and deadlines, not least due to the exigencies created by modern government and the aid-and-development ‘industrial complex’.

16Two-thirds of people surveyed (eleven out of 16), however, said Afghans were clearly less time-sensitive. A majority (13/16) also noted that problems arose either ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ because their agenda was overridden or ignored by their Afghan negotiation partner. As before, while Afghan culture is not particularly time-sensitive, the attribution of this phenomenon entirely to culture should be avoided. Violence, security problems and poor infrastructure (particularly roads) seriously compromise the potential for time organisation and punctuality. Any given security incident may generate curfews and other restrictions likely to postpone planned undertakings for several weeks, a phenomenon obviously incompatible with meeting deadlines and schedules.

4.6. The Role of Emotions in Negotiation

17Over the last two decades, the role of emotion in negotiation has been the topic of a plethora of academic articles. The conclusions of these articles progressed from rather basic findings, such as demonstrating that positive facial expressions favourably influence cooperation (Carnevale and Isen, 1986) and high self-esteem and positive mood improve negotiators’ confidence and optimism (Kramer et al, 1993) to specific topics relating to the strategic use of emotion in negotiations.

18The survey asked respondents to evaluate how important emotions are to Afghans, in contrast to themselves, during negotiation. This highly subjective question is, of course, very much dependent on what one identifies as an emotional element. What is actually perceived, of course, is not emotion itself, but its display in human interaction. The manner, and extent, of emotional display is, in turn, heavily influenced by cultural factors. As Afghan culture is ostensibly both high-context and indirect, Afghans would be expected to conceal their emotions when interacting with foreigners.

19In the survey, however, ten out of 17 respondents indicated that emotions played a greater role in negotiations for Afghans than for themselves. Six felt that emotions were equally influential to both Afghans and themselves, while only one found emotions to be more important for foreigners. This result is likely due to multiple factors.  An initial explanation could lie in the fact that foreigners, when judging Afghans’ behaviour, might be unconsciously influenced by their preconceived notions regarding what they – despite all their acculturation – consider to be an ‘irrational mentality’ (characterised by religious fanaticism and so forth).

20Secondly, the previously-mentioned strategic display of emotions is likely at play in today’s negotiation game. In a 2007 study, American-Israeli scholar Shirli Kopelman demonstrated that in cultures which highly value humility and deference, such as Afghan culture, the demonstration of positive emotion is an efficient tool for obtaining concessions in negotiations (2008). The overall literature, however, has placed greater emphasis on the strategic use of anger in negotiations (Van Cleef et al, 2004), suggesting that ‘becoming angry’ during negotiation, be it simulated or real, elicits a higher readiness on the part of the opponent to accept unfavourable outcomes (Filipowicz, 2011). Whichever sentiment is involved, the tactical use of emotional elements is likely to be used on each side of international negotiation in Afghanistan. The third, and probably most significant, explanation lies in the psychological reality currently faced by the Afghan population. In a country with such high levels of on-going violence, the population experiences trauma daily. The younger generation of Afghanistan has never really experienced peace. Culture and tactics aside, the simplest explanation of the significance of emotions to negotiation is quite simply the fact that, born of suffering, such emotions exist.

4.7. Agreement: Specific vs. General Formulation (Inductive vs. Deductive)

21With respect to the form of written agreement each culture likely to pursue, the survey posed two questions. The first asked whether Afghans (and, subsequently, themselves) tended to pursue specific or general agreements. 15 out of 16 respondents indicated Afghans pursued agreements formulated in general terms than foreigners. It may be speculated that general formulations are understood to provide Afghans with leeway of interpretation in a rapidly changing environment.  

22The second question inquired into the dynamic process of reaching an agreement. It contrasted deductive (i.e. a rule is agreed upon and specifics are handled according to the rule) and inductive (i.e. topics are selected and the rule is then extrapolated from the specifics) agreement elaboration. The findings of this question were not particularly clear, but, in general, Afghans were considered to be slightly more inductive. This would be consistent with the case-by-case decision-making process inherent to the institution of jirga. Among written texts, moreover, only the Koran is credited with sufficient normative character to engender a deductive conclusion (called قياس; qiyas, in Islamic jurisprudence).

4.8. Team Organisation: Single Leader vs. Group Consensus

23The survey also asked after the structure of the various negotiating teams, asking respondents to select among the options of teams governed by a single leader or by consensus. Nine of 14 participants stated that Afghans were more single-leader oriented than Westerners, while four answered the opposite. (For a discussion of hierarchical vs. egalitarian societies, please refer to section 1.3).

4.9. Degree of Risks Taken: Low vs. High

24The last question of the survey refers to the comparative propensity for risk-taking among Afghans and foreigners. The responses suggested Afghans took more risks than foreigners in their negotiation behaviour (with eight answers, as opposed to three). While it would be too strong to attribute Afghans’ risk-taking behaviour to a particular cultural factor, Pashtun tradition contains the ideal of the brave man, or turialay (توريالې, literally ‘the one who holds the sword’), an ideal incorporating a high degree of daring. In all likelihood, however, the difference in openness to risk is due to the fact that Afghans have simply less to lose than foreigners. As their economic and general situation gives them fewer alternatives than those of foreigners, Afghans have no choice but to take risks. Ultimately, foreigners may go home at any time, should their situation become too risky.


1  Argentina; Brazil; China; France; Germany; India; Japan; Mexico; Nigeria; Spain; USA; UK.

2  The majority of respondents were Western citizens, although some had emigrated to the West from elsewhere.

3  Pathans is the name commonly given to both the Pakistani and Afghan Pashtuns. It was mainly used by British colonial writers and is becoming more and more obsolete.

4  Regarding the phenomenon of mutual imitation, the Swiss anthropologists Pierre and Micheline Centlivres(-Demont) recount a very illustrative anecdote: ‘Nous enrageons lorsque des “expatriés” travaillant pour une ONG ou une organisation internationale et désireux de “faire afghan”, nous convient à un repas servi à “l’orientale”… après avoir retiré chaises et table. Quelle scène étrange que celle où les experts européens, invités à s’asseoir à même le tapis, s’efforcent avec plus ou moins de succès de puiser dans les plats disposés au sol, alors qu’un peu à l’écart les invités afghans portant cravate mangent le même repas assis sur des chaises’ (Centlivres and Centlivres-Demont, 2007, 109).

5  In absolute terms, nine out of 17 found Afghans ‘win-lose’, and four found Afghans to be more ‘win-win’.

6  Due to the small sample, the term ‘trend’ here claims no statistical sense.

7  Tarborwali ( تربوروالی) is a synonym of tarborgalwi (تربورګلوي).

8  This would need further differentiation as, for example, Americans are generally considered more informal than Germans.


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