Business Negotiations Between American and Vietnamese Businesses: The Influence of Proxemics and Site Setting on Negotiation Outcomes

By Tuong-Minh Ly-Le
2015, Vol. 7 No. 04 | pg. 3/3 |



Research has shown that most Americans prefer negotiating in their own territory, have less preference for negotiating in a neutral territory, and have least preference for negotiating in the other’s territory. They find a greater challenge when negotiating outside their own territory, and that makes them less confident delivering their viewpoint (Chu et al., 2005). However, they usually not only find themselves doing in business in another country, but also outside their home office. As Vietnamese people traditionally invite expats to come to their offices to meet, negotiate, and get acquainted, American businesspeople have to practice negotiation in the opponent’s territory.

The aforementioned psychological pressure, in addition to the tiredness of traveling, and the stress of communicating and adapting to another culture, can make the negotiation process undesirable for American people. Moreover, a Vietnamese host seems to have a greater advantage even before the negotiation starts. Not only they have the ability to arrange the meeting to increase their strength, they can show their hospitality, thus gaining the American’s appreciation, as well. Altogether, the situation makes the Americans feel less comfortable and makes it more difficult for them to counter the host’s viewpoint when being a visiting party.

Nevertheless, instead of emphasizing the host’s “power” to sway the visitors to comply, the Vietnamese people use the opportunity to get to know each other and, hopefully, create a long-lasting relationship. Even though the relationship building seems foreign in a business setting, especially to American people, Americans can nonetheless enjoy the hospitality, feel welcome in the new country, and have an opportunity to lessen the frustrations. Moreover, as Mayfield and colleagues (1998) mentioned, if negotiators actively inspect the host’s facilities, personnel and capabilities, the negotiators can see if the host’s business meets expectations, and can gain initial knowledge of the potential partner.

To review, H1 states that American negotiators find it agreeable to meet in the locations that the Vietnamese partners choose. With the discussed points, H1 is partially supported by the reviewed literatures. While the negotiation site at the other party’s turf can make it uncomfortable for American negotiators at first, the hospitality of Vietnamese people can induce warm sentiments. Furthermore, if the Americans know how to utilize this chance to learn more about the other party, and to build a strong network for future business opportunities, the location can be to their advantage. Therefore, this paper concludes that the American negotiators indeed find it agreeable to meet in the locations that the Vietnamese partners choose.

Physical Arrangement

As for the space and distance dimension, it has been shown through much research that the social distance of American people is the same as that of the Vietnamese (Hall, 1966; Bui, 2009; Le, 2009). Since a person’s social distance preference influences how that person sets up the surrounding space, designing rooms and working areas, it is most likely that the Vietnamese room spatial setting is very close to American style. Therefore, it can be inferred that the spatial expectations during business negotiations of the two parties are somewhat the same, and the fixed-feature space (the room setting) of a Vietnamese location is acceptable to American people.

On the other hand, there are two types of meeting occasions that call for different seating arrangements in a typical Vietnamese negotiation process, as described by XZone (2012). The first type is an informal meeting, which is used for both parties to get to know each other. In this case, the social space is reduced significantly since the tables are usually small with a number of seats around as in Figure 5 shown previously. The purpose is to create a cozy, friendly atmosphere, which would ease any business tension and bring forth a relationship initiation. The round table choice seems to serve the purpose with Americans, as Chu et al. (2005)’s research stated that most people prefer round desks at meetings, as they believe it creates a better overall environment.

However, the small size of the table can be problematic. It forces people to stay closer together, at a less than a preferable social distance. American people may expect this closeness in a later stage of their partnership, when business is in progress and they understand the others better. Hence, Americans may find this approach to be a bit strange, and the physical closeness may be deemed as an invasion of personal space, which can cause discomfort and negative sentiments toward the Vietnamese party. Moreover, since all of the seats are identical with equal heights, a dominant person does not have the option to select a preferred seat and will have to comply with the host’s arrangement. While these issues may not be problematic if both parties know each other well, during the early meetings, if the American people have dominant personalities, or if they are not culturally sensitive, they may form a bad impression that can eventually impact the negotiation outcomes.

During the later stage of business negotiation, when a formal, decision-making meeting is called for, a rectangular table with bigger, heavier chairs is often used, as illustrated in Figure 6a and 6b. In both cases, there are prearranged positions for the two parties. As mentioned earlier, this lack of choice for seating can cause a dominant American to develop unfavorable feelings toward the host. Furthermore, this arrangement puts negotiators in the competitive position. Pease (1981) concluded that this position make the two parties more conscious of their arguments and more likely to reject the other’s, thus reducing the chance of a successful negotiation. Another flaw of this arrangement is that the Americans have to work in the opponent’s territory, which would put them at a remarkable psychological disadvantage and give the hosts an upper hand (Pease, 1981; Lewicki & Litterer, 1985).

In the Figure 6b situation, the host’s seat also adds to this psychological pressure. The host’s seat is advised to be bigger, higher, and placed at a better positioning than every other chair (Too, 2006); it is perceived by Americans as a type of power play to put other people at a subconsciously lower level (Pease, 1981). This lining up, on one hand, gives clear superiority to the host, emphasizes his ideas and may sway the outcome to his favor. On the other hand, it may give the visitors the idea that the hosts are not sincere enough to make a fair negotiation, as they deliberately empower themselves and may appear to belittle the visiting party. Altogether, it can be concluded that the Vietnamese seating arrangement (semi-fixed-feature space) may be perceived negatively by Americans, and this perception can hinder a successful negotiation outcome.

Consequently, H2 is supported. To review, H2 states that American negotiators find the physical arrangement in a Vietnamese location less than preferable for a successful negotiation. Between the two factors of physical arrangement, the Vietnamese fixed-feature space is acceptable to the Americans, while the semi-fixed-feature space is proved to be less than favorable. The author thus concludes that Americans find the overall physical arrangement in a Vietnamese location less than preferable for a successful negotiation.

Limitations and Suggestions

This study is subject to an apparent limitation in that it is based upon a literature review. Much of the referenced work is from more than ten years ago, which makes its validity to the present arguable. Moreover, the literature for Vietnamese setting and preferences is slight, including very few academic research studies. The two Vietnamese studies referred in this paper had relatively small samples, which make them harder to be generalized to the bigger Vietnamese population. However, despite the limitation, this study sheds light on the importance of proxemics in business negotiation, and how American people perceive the traditional Vietnamese settings. It can help Vietnamese businesspeople to consciously arrange their places to meet the other party’s expectations, and facilitate a better outcome for the negotiation.

This research does, however, set the stage for empirical research in which data can be collected from the business worlds of both American and Vietnamese people to test the older research’s results and update more academic information for Vietnamese settings. Future research can administer surveys to Vietnamese and American businesspeople that have experience in negotiation to understand their perceptions and preferences. Research can also survey American businesspeople who do negotiation in their homeland and those who negotiate in Vietnam to see if there is any clear difference in the perceptions of proxemics or outcomes of the meetings. The study needs to enhance its validity and generalizability, and to make a more meaningful implication to business practitioners.


It can be seen that even though not everyone realizes the influence of proxemics on negotiations, the negotiation location and physical arrangement may have a direct impact on how American and Vietnamese people perceive their potential business partners and ultimately on the outcome of the negotiation. This research found that the American negotiators find it agreeable to meet in the locations that the Vietnamese partners choose. While the negotiation site at the other party’s territory can make it somewhat uncomfortable for Americans, the hospitality of Vietnamese people can induce warm sentiments, and Americans can use this chance to learn more about the capability of their partners. It is also concluded that American people regard the overall physical arrangement in a Vietnamese location as less than preferable for a successful negotiation.

More research is needed, however, to gather data from real world of both American and Vietnamese businesspeople to fully understand the role of proxemics in business negotiations, to improve the validity and generalizability, and thus overcome the shortcomings of this present study. Since more and more American businesses are investing in Vietnam, it is crucial for American and Vietnamese businesspeople to make the best out of the negotiation process, and to benefit both economies.


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