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The Invisible Culture of Trust

What makes you trust another person? Is it their handshake? The way they look? Maybe it is the way you were introduced. Chances are you don’t even know what your criteria are for trusting a person, but one thing is for sure – what causes people to trust in one culture could be exactly what causes someone to not trust you in another.

I’ll never forget the first story I heard that illustrated this point. It involved a Japanese car manufacturer who was looking for a parts supplier. The Japanese group had narrowed it down to a U.S. American supplier and a Brazilian one. The U.S. Americans had a superior product at a lower cost, but instead, the Japanese group opted for the Brazilian proposal. When the well-prepared U.S. Americans learned this, they were stumped.

Trust is obviously an important part of doing business in all countries, but how it manifests itself through behavior can be completely different. The shared value (Invisible Culture) is trust. The way to establish trust (Visible Culture) varies. For the Chinese it is through Guanxi, for the Germans, it is through objectivity and timeliness, for U.S. Americans it may be through speed, and for the French, it may be through a shared history.

As far as the above-abridged story, in short, the Japanese come from a relationship-oriented culture – without the relationship, the task won’t get done. As a result, business interactions start with getting to know one another, whether it be through a meal or spending time during the first meeting talking about anything but business. See figure 1.

U.S. Americans come from a task-oriented culture – getting right down to business shows professionalism and respect for time. By starting with the task they can determine whether or not it makes sense to spend time socializing. See figure 2.

To U.S. Americans, business socializing still maintains a certain distance, whereas in some cultures, they won’t know if they can trust you until you have shown your true self.

Ways to do that include making yourself vulnerable through drinking together, letting your guard down, or picking up that mike in karaoke. It may seem trivial, but in fact, it is sometimes the difference between the deal getting done or not.

This is a simplification of a complex subject since there are many different factors involved in how different cultures establish trust. Communication styles, aversion to risk, humor, timing, introductions, and cognitive styles can all play a role, but increased awareness about the Task – Relationship dynamic is a good concept to start with if you are going to a new place.

Whether it be a new country or a different region within your own country, the first step is to identify your preferred style, the second is to identify the style of your receiving culture and the third is to adapt to the extent that it doesn’t change your own core values. If you value getting the job done quickly, then sometimes it is best to slow down – you’ll get there faster.

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