Working internationally

Trust across cultures - a step-by-step guide

If you work across cultures, or you are planning a business travel abroad, maybe sprinkled with some negotiation, trust is definitely on your mind.

trust across cultures
123rf.com/Sergey Skripnikov

Do you trust your business partners abroad? Do they trust you? How do you know? What should you do and what should you avoid doing? The questions are many and you only get to make a first impression once. So let’s go through some of the main differenes in… well, trusting across cultures!

General versus assurance-based trust

Let’s begin at the beginning: generally we can say that there are two kinds of trust. One is called “general trust” and the other one “assurance-based”. The first one is something that on a daily basis you may call your gut-feeling, or the attitude of “innocent until proven guilty”. It means that when I meet you, I do greet you with trust, and you have to do something in order for me to lost my trust. On the other hand, if my trust is assurance-based, that means that you have to do something in order to gain it. And the way I trust is deeply affected by my cultural background. The American society for example, is quite a task- and result focused, so if you want to gain the trust of your leader or colleagues, you will first need to present them with results, show them that you always meet the deadlines, etc. In India, on the other hand you have plenty of time for small talk and chit-chatting around, as there trust is something more personal, and it is more close to the gut-feeling.

Gain trust and show trust

There are two people in each relationship. So if you aim at gaining your partner’s trust, you shouldn’t forget that he probably wants the same. So at one end you have your desire to gain their trust, and at the other you have the way you show them yours. How can you assure your international business partner of your trust? In Arab cultures, for example you can seriously offend your partner if after sealing the deal orally, you instantly call the lawyer to bring in the papers. This way you communicate that you don’t trust them, which is a really good way of losing their trust also.

Think of trust as a language. Just as each country has its language, they have their own trusts as well, and you can and should learn it when preparing for international business.

Relationship- or task-oriented?

Are personal relationships, or rather the work and its results more important? In relationship-oriented cultures trust comes mainly from the human interactions, rather than the raw work results. Going out for drinks and dinner, spending a night out is a great way of building trust in France for example, but in other countries it might come off as totally inappropriate. In less relationship-focused countries you will have to let your work speak for itself rather than going out for drinks. It’s just something that you have to research, learn, and act accordingly.

Levels of loyalty

What about loyalty? And more precisely, loyalty to a workplace? In Japan, for example, it is still common for people to commit to a job for a lifetime. In Western countries, where individual achievements are of the highest value, this has become nearly entirely uncommon. So in the West changing your workplace every couple of years doesn’t mean anything bad, on the contrary, it can show that you are a driven and ambitious person. But in countries like Japan for example, this can mean that you are not realiable, and could contribute to losing your trust-points in the eyes of your potential partner.

These are just a couple of main ideas along which you can prepare for an upcoming collaboration. They are not set in stone, but can definitely help in getting an idea about what might contribute to a fruitful partnership across different countries.

Eszter Szűcs-Imre

At a glance

  • General trust or assurance-based trust mark the main difference between cultures.
  • When building trust, showing trust is really important. How you show trust though roots in your cultural background.
  • In relationship-oriented cultures trust comes mainly from the human interactions, rather than the raw work results.
  • In less relationship-focused countries you will have to let your work speak for itself.
  • Loyalty can also be seen in different ways depending on a person’s cultural background.
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