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Study: Pre-Negotiation Small Talk Is Useless, If You're a Woman

Chitchat before negotiations helps men but does nothing for women, a new study finds.
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When it comes to negotiating, sadly, gender matters.

This isn't news. A steady drumbeat of studies show that, in various ways, differing expectations for the genders impact how their behavior is received by those across the table. Women, for instance, are more likely to be blatantly lied to, according to recent research. Other studies show taking a tough line in salary negotiations is riskier for women.

Now new findings recently presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Management are adding to this less-than-cheerful body of research. The international team behind the series of studies looked at the effect of pre-negotiation small talk on outcomes by asking study participants to both evaluate the performance of fictitious negotiators who had either a clearly male or female name and to decide on a numerical value to be placed on an asset (the use of a plot of city land) that these same made-up negotiators were haggling over.

How did the negotiators' gender affect their performance? Warming up the other party with small talk, it turns out, is a winning strategy for men, but totally useless for women. In the case of the fictitious negotiator "Andrew," not only did people rate his performance more highly when he engaged in pre-negotiation chitchat, but he also managed to secure $600 more for the asset (it was initially valued at $10,000 in the negotiation) when he was generous with small talk. "JoAnna" saw no such bump in outcomes.

Study co-author and American University management professor Alexandra A. Mislin sums up the findings: "For men, the principal message of this study is clear: You've got more to gain from a small investment in chitchat than you may realize." For women, a little small talk has basically no impact on how things go when negotiating.

What's behind this significant difference? The authors speculate that, because of gender stereotypes, women may simply be assumed to be nice and communally minded, so there's little gain in going through the effort of proving it. Men, on the other hand, gain when they show warmth toward others. "As compared to women, men are described as less communal, and, thus, for example, as less communicative, sociable, or concerned about others...Because for men communality is not assumed, they may profit a great deal from showing communal behaviors," the study authors write.

As the authors suggest, these findings probably have more immediate and practical takeaways for men--don't skimp on the pre-negotiation small talk. For women, the findings probably just reinforce our annoyance at the stereotypes we face, and suggest that when it comes to small talk, don't sweat it too much. If you're comfortable engaging in chitchat, go ahead, but don't force yourself. It won't make much difference either way.

IMAGE: Shutterstock/Everett Collection
Last updated: Aug 15, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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