This post is also available in: Japanese
The UK government has twice now invoked the concept of “reasonable” in its negotiations with the European Union over Brexit. It’s vital that Japanese managers working in the UK understand this concept of “reasonable”, as it forms the basis of arbitration when there are disputes between companies and also grievances between employer and employee.
In August 2018, when visiting Japan, Dr Liam Fox the UK secretary of state for international trade urged Japan and other partners to talk to the EU and say “Britain has made you a fair and reasonable offer” and “if you reject that offer, and we end up with no deal, that would be to everybody’s detriment – the EU, the UK and our trading partners.”
Professor Anna Wierzbicka ‘s chapter “Being Reasonable” in her book “English: Meaning and Culture” points out that when British use “reasonable” in the way Dr Fox has, there is an implied value judgement, of the other side being “unreasonable” as in “silly”, “extreme” or “reckless”. Professor Wierzbicka was born and educated in Poland, and now lives in Australia, so has an informed but objective perspective on how this differs from the French and German equivalents. As Michel Barnier, European Chief Negotiator for the EU is French, his natural inclination will be to translate “reasonable” into “raisonnable”, which means to be sensible and capable of being reasoned with. Sabine Weyand, his deputy, is German. The definition of the German word for “reason”, Vernunft, includes the concept of “order” – that there is a correct process. “Reasonable” does not exist in the negative in French and is only used once in the French civil code and not at all in German law.
The more recent use of “reasonable” was by Geoffrey Cox, the UK attorney-general. He was proposing a system of arbitration to allow the UK to escape from the backstop plan for the Northern Ireland border by having arbitration independent of the European Court of Justice, which would judge whether the UK had made “reasonable” efforts to find alternatives if the talks had irretrievably broken down between the UK and the EU. International law however prefers to stick to “good faith”, “best endeavours” and binding assurances.
At this point most ordinary businesspeople want to give up in despair. Unless you are a lawyer, it becomes very hard to comprehend. Nonetheless, as businesspeople we do need to grasp the concept in order to manage and do business in the UK. So I hope my explanation of “reasonable” will help: When trying to persuade an employee to do something, such as overtime, or negotiating with a business partner, “reasonable” means three things if they are British. 1. You explained the reasons behind your request in a way that was easy to understand. 2. The request is not damagingly extreme (for example too expensive or too cheap a price) 3. The reasons were rational, logical, sensible. If they respond with “that seems reasonable” to your request, you have succeeded.
For more content like this, subscribe to the free Rudlin Consulting Newsletter.