Establishing Trust to Do Business Across Cultures

May 20, 2019

By William R. Dodson

When dealing with people from other cultures, Westerners in general—and Americans specifically—need to hone their relationship-building skills.  Trust must come first, before anyone signs on the dotted line. The management trainee Xiao Yu watched helplessly while his boss and the foreign visitors sat at the restaurant table without a word to say to each other. No one was angry or dismissive; they simply didn't know what to say, where to begin the conversation or how to sustain what was to begin. The visitors had come all the way from China that same day, and had not even stopped to take a nap. A quick shower, a change of clothes and the Chinese delegation of business managers was whisked away to the American headquarters of the American manufacturer for meetings the rest of the afternoon.

The afternoon had gone badly as well. The two sides had sat stiffly with each other at the conference table. Each had brought up the same points again and again, without resolution and without comfort. Xiao Yu dutifully translated the requirements of the Chinese side into English so his boss would be able to respond. Then Xiao Yu translated his boss’s gruff answers from English into Chinese. There had been no time for the two sides to get to know each other before the business negotiations. Discourse became tenser. Fortunately, the hour was growing late and hunger could no longer be ignored.

Businessmen in America have very little conscious sense of the need for people to get to know each other before they launch into business dealings. In practically every other country in the world, people take time to know their counterparts personally before they even dream of launching into negotiations. Negotiations themselves are often punctuated by periods of getting to know each other further.

Getting to know the people with whom you will be dealing is fundamental to successfully launching and concluding business dealings. Polite questions about culture, society, family, likes and dislikes are fundamental to starting business with southern Europeans, Latin Americans, Arabs, and Asians. I've sat through many a meeting with Latin Americans and with Asians where we've talked about everything BUT what we had come together to discuss in the first place. It’s taken hours in some cases to establish enough of a base of trust with my counterparts to begin broaching sensitive issues.

Sharing your "self" in these instances and asking about the counterpart’s "self" shows you genuinely care about the success of the other person. It also helps you to map the topography of the "face" of your counterpart, so you'll know when to back off delicate issues you come upon, when to regroup, and when to forge in another direction. That’s not to say the issue is to be ignored. However, it is the realization that the relationship between the two of you is more important than the issue at hand. And, practically speaking, you have both come together to do business for a long time—after all, that’s how the most money is made, in the long run.

When dealing with Asians, Westerners in general—and Americans specifically—need to hone their relationship-building skills beyond just playing golf and going to bars to shout at each other (American-style). Instead, learn something beforehand about your counterpart’s culture. Identify what subjects are taboo and what you are expected to discuss. Many is the time when dealing with relationship-based cultures I've been asked in the first five minutes of the discussion: "Are you married?" "Do you have any children?" (Once, while I was thumbing through a magazine, a Thai businesswoman pointed to an infant in a photo and said, "Do you have one of those?")

Xiao Yu saved the dinner and arguably the day by bringing up the point that China and America were in the World Cup. The Chinese became animated and the American manager knew a bit about soccer because his children played. Still, Xiao Yu was able to support his boss (give him face) and open the relationship and its possibilities for business. The second day of negotiations was easier, though, unfortunately, neither side came away with what each had been hoping for: the ability to trust each other.

About the Author(s)

William R. Dodson is managing director of Silk Road Communications (SRC), a China investment research and development company with offices in Chicago, Beijing, and in the Suzhou Industrial Park, near Shanghai.  He lives in Suzhou.  Contact him at .