How to Surmount Cross-Cultural Trust Barriers in Business


Our culture is embedded in everything we do. Defined as shared values, beliefs and norms of a specific group of people, culture influences how we learn, connect with one another, form relationships, react, celebrate and even do business. Scientists believe our culture shapes our personalities as well, which is why even though our fellow countrymen may look and act differently, we all share similar personality traits that make us all Americans, Europeans, Asians, etc.  And these differences, both subtle and glaring will expose themselves time and time again when we do business.  How can we learn to build trust between different cultures?  Easy.  Just trust with your heart…OR your head. It all depends. Allow me to explain.

If you are American, you are probably forthright and direct. You believe a firm handshake and “getting down to business” is the best way to conduct a business meeting. And, generally after deals are made, sometimes there is celebrating to do like enjoying a nice meal.  Of course, this is a sliding scale. Not all Americans are boisterous and uber-direct, but as a whole, the lot are on time, self-directed, individualistic, generally friendly, open and results-driven.  Americans think (and do business) with their heads. And they are not alone.  Other such cultures include Germany, Denmark, the U.K and Australia.  This is called cognitive trust.

Cognitive trust is task-based and grounded in the confidence you feel in another person’s accomplishments, skills and reliability. Conversely, affective trust is relationship-based. It comes from the heart and arises from friendship and empathy. In all cultures this is the type of trust you have between spouses, friends, and parents and their children. But when it comes to business, this trust clashes with cognitive trust and that is where trouble can brew.

Some countries that use affective-trust in business dealings are Japan, China, Brazil, Saudia Arabia, and Nigeria.  Here they need to feel a connection and develop a bond before they can conduct business. Cultures where cognitive trust is front-and-center, don’t do this. They concentrate on the business at hand first and get to the deeper connections later.

For example, when negotiating a joint venture in a country such as Japan, American companies can arrive well prepared, friendly and transparent, but all their talk will not create the desired results if they don’t change their approach from cognitive to affective trust. If they don’t, they are wasting precious hours by fruitlessly selling their ideas first.  Speed is not your friend here.

When dealing with affective trust leaning cultures, slow down. Take Japanese counterparts out to dinner first. Socialize and toast to a prosperous future that lies ahead for both companies.  Open up personally and create friendships first. Real friendships. Only once you have established a rapport, can you delve into the details of your business venture. Your new Japanese friends will be more willing to cooperate and move forward as a team.

Americans should use this whenever they do business with similar thinking countries.  Take Brazil. Tight deadlines and short, intense negotiations with little time to breathe—let alone eat a leisurely lunch— may not be the best course of action for American companies to take when trying to connect with Brazilians.  You will gain trust and get better results by adding long lunches and dinners into the mix.  Ease up on the need to be prompt and meet strict deadlines.  Develop personal connections in concert with business connections and you will fair better.  If you live a bit more like they do in Brazil, your business dealings will be more successful there.

And societies that are affective leaning should keep a few things in mind when dealing with more task-based cultures like America. For instance, let cognitive-trust cultures know if you are going to be late to a meeting or if a meeting will run later than the agreed upon time. Keep in mind that task-based cultures may be more focused than you are on seeing proof that your product or service is of high-quality. Know too that while drinks and dinner is a good balance to negotiations, if task-based colleagues leave early to attend to other business or to rest, no offence should be taken.

Regardless of whether you are cultivating affective trust, cognitive trust or both, it’s best done through live one-on-one interactions, not through email correspondence. It is the best way for it to work! And remember to be patient. Even when you develop a high degree of trust with a different culture, it may take time before their relationships are as comfortable as those within your own culture.

No matter which culture you come from, there is a way to achieve balance.  We can learn a lot through the process as well. Create the trust. Form a bond and get the business contract. And all this learning and relationship building exponentially increases the potential for excellent global relationships!

By Ilona Knudson

#cognitivetrust #translations #affectivetrust #crossculturalcommunication #workingacrosscultures #crossculturaltraining #aiatranslations

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