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Understanding Culture: Don’t Steal Rocks from Iceland 

understanding culture

A lot of Chinese negotiation is based on Confucianism Philosophy. The Western world has a Judeo-Christian background and approach. According to Joana Matos, Icelanders are strong believers in elves.

Icelanders aren’t religious as a country because they were pagans before the church tried to convert them. In their hearts, they still embrace Viking beliefs. They won’t even move a large rock without consulting an elf expert to see if it’s home to an elf.

Don’t steal rocks from Iceland

A tourist in Iceland took a rock home with him, which Joana points out is largely frowned upon. After he returned home, he shipped the rock back to Iceland with a note that said, “Ever since I took this rock, my life has been falling apart. My wife divorced me. I lost my job. I had an accident…would you please return it to the mountain I took it from?” The University of Iceland sent a helicopter to the mountain to return the rock.

A culture’s history drives everything

It’s always good to understand a culture’s underlying history as it impacts the way they behave. Joana used to believe that Icelandic people were rude. Then she started reading history books. Iceland students must learn and read the Iceland Sagas. The sagas are the foundation of their culture, just like the Bible is to Christians or the Quran to Muslims.

In his book, “Chinese Business Negotiation Style,” Tony Fang focuses on teaching Westerners how much history and Confucian philosophy are tied into their negotiation style. I’ve always found it helpful to read about the religion, history, and folklore of the area of the person I might be negotiating with to understand how they may act or react to a certain situation.


When we think about how people interact, it’s often developed based on ancient beliefs—that may not be talked about—but are pervasive in every aspect of their culture. So I always advise people to learn as much about the culture they’re going into as possible.

You have to understand how people might perceive what you’re saying. If you come from Sweden or Holland, where people are informal, you can cause a lot of damage in a negotiation with someone who is Japanese.

But when you dive deeper into someone’s history, it’s also fun. In her classes, Joana has her students analyze different countries, and she always learns something new. Her students shared that speaking with your hands isn’t well-received in Holland. In some countries, blowing your nose in public—which Icelanders constantly do—is offensive.

Understanding culture hinges on being open-minded

It’s important to have an open mind and be curious. You have to be compassionate toward others. Someone may behave in a way you might disapprove of, but it’s how they were raised. It’s cultural relativeness. You don’t have to agree with it, but you must understand it.

We’ve never had so many people working remotely from all over the world. On the surface, we all look the same, but we communicate in different ways. The way we interpret communication is different. Some people write short messages, which seems rude to others.

Misunderstandings pile up if you don’t take the time to set a baseline of what could be expected. If you work in a multicultural environment, you have to speak up. Clarify things before assuming the worst of someone. Always remember to remain open-minded and avoid being judgmental.

Joana shares more about understanding the cultural context in negotiations in episode #335 of Negotiations Ninja. You can also check out the episode to learn more about negotiating with Icelanders!