Trust across cultures


Whatever aspects of business communication we choose to talk about in order to better understand what it takes to build a successful intercultural business, I think it all comes down to trust. Each successful business deal, just as each failed one is a story of trust or the lack of it. Whether a deal was agreed upon because of the counterparts mutually liking each other in a gut-feeling kind of way, or because potential outcomes, investments and risks were all thoroughly thought out beforehand, it is all rooted in the question whether there was trust or not. The ways of building and maintaining trust are of course countless across cultures: while in Germany you can gain someone’s trust by being respectful to their time and always show up on time, ready to give specific and factual information, in Spain you can get the same result by being 20 minutes late to the meeting, and still show up talking on your cellphone, but being really open and show personal interest towards your partner, acting kindly and being there as a potential friend rather than a strict business partner.

When it comes to trust, it’s not really about the amount that certain cultures are willing or able to invest, but rather the type of trust they „work with”. There are two major kinds of trust, we could say, and this marks the main difference between cultures: a so-called general trust, which is basically a kind of bias, because it means that I generally trust you, as I generally tend to trust people until given a reason not to. As opposed to this there is the so-called assurance-based trust, which is exactly what its name says: I tend not to give you the benefit of the doubt, but rather wait for you to convince me that I can trust you, since my trust has to be earned. In the US for example it is perfectly normal that you have to earn your partner’s trust, and you can do this with your skills, and your way of fulfilling tasks. You have to strictly meet deadlines, do exactly what was agreed upon, and then you can earn your partner’s trust, as the American society tends to be more task- and result focused. In India, on the other hand, there is plenty of time and space for you to explain why you want certain things, and even small talk plays an important role in wining someone’s trust. Just as in Arab cultures, where you might offend your counterpart if after agreeing on a certain deal and both of them giving your word, you already send for your lawyers to sort out the papers. From their point of view this might imply that you don’t trust them and it could come off as an insult. Which brings us to another importan question: how can you express your trust to people from different cultural backgrounds. Because when building trust, showing trust is really important, and how you show your trust has its roots in your cultural background, so naturally what you interpret as trust is culturally bound as well. Just like speaking another country’s language, you have to learn what actions mean trust in a different setting than you own. Taking the time to go out for drinks, passionate talk and enjoy an evening out together can be one of the best ways to tell your partners „I do trust you” if you are doing business in France for example. In relationship-based cultures the way you interact can weigh more than thoroughly prepared presentations for example. Another thing that is good to have in mind as well is how certain cultures relate to workplaces: there are the cultures that value loyalty above all else, like Japan for example, and there it is still common to see lifelong commitments to a workplace. In Western cultures this is not so common nowadays, as people tend to change their workplaces every couple of years, since individual achievements, tasks and self-fulfilling is more important in these cultures than well established networks. And this has a major say in what constitutes trust, as in these cultures changing the workplace doesn’t indicate disloyalty for example.

Another aspect of trust is that it has been psychologically proven that we automatically tend to view other cultures as enemies. Even if unconsciously, but we are programmed to live with some sort of bias, as a means to surviving. It has been said many times that for more cultures to live together is not a natural thing for people, as we are coded to be „with our own kind”, and have our boundaries. So when talking about cross-cultural trust, it is good to have this in mind. Of course this doesn’t mean that trust can’t be built and maintained, it only means that it is a serious investment from both parts, and cultural awareness, as always, is key to it.

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