11 tips on building trust across cultures

Published on July 20th, 2021

building trust across cultures

Building trust across cultures is essential for establishing successful business relationships.

Different cultures sense trust in different ways. Pragmatic, task-based Americans are likely to trust someone based on their skills, their track record and their references. On the other hand, typically more emotional South Americans and Arab cultures will trust someone because they like them, they have established common ground and they feel a sense of rapport.

Understanding how to build and maintain trust across cultures is vital to business success.

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Here are 11 tips on building trust across cultures:

1. Understand networking

In China, business is based on guanxi, or on a network of contacts and relationships. It is essential to build a rapport with your counterparts, through getting-to-know-you meetings, hospitality and conversation that extends beyond business. An introduction from a trusted member of the network is ideal; this intermediary will help to establish trust on the part of the Chinese by association. In Arab cultures, too, a mutual contract that can make an introduction is an important step towards building trust.

2. Build trust across cultures over time

South American cultures are similar in that time must be taken for socialising and establishing the relationship. You, as someone from a time-pressured, results-based culture, may be conscious of wasting the time of the other side by attending lunches and dinners but to them, it is an important part of building trust. Business may not even be discussed until trust has been established.

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3. Understand what form trust takes

In Arab cultures, your word is your bond. If a deal is struck at a meeting and lawyers are immediately wheeled out to draft contracts, your counterparts may be offended; this behaviour indicates a lack of trust on your part.

4. Build relationships creatively

If you come from a relationship-based culture and are trying to do business with people from a results-based culture, you can still build trust if you are flexible and creative. Invite people to lunch, for example, but suggest when the lunch might end. Go out for drinks, but don’t feel offended if your American counterparts leave after a couple of rounds, rather than going on for dinner.

5. Respect multiculturalism in a virtual team

If you are managing a virtual team, try to understand each individual’s working style and try not to micro-manage. Initially, this can be something of a leap of faith but setting a deadline and then hassling individuals for regular progress updates might be, in their minds, a lack of trust on your part.

6. Understand the mentality of your superior or customer

On the other hand, if you are part of a virtual team and reporting to someone from a different culture, it is just as important that you help them to trust you. For example, if your manager is in the USA, they will expect deadlines to be met promptly, no excuses, straight talking and explicit, direct communication. Trust will be destroyed if they feel you are not giving them the full picture.

7. Learn to work with indirect communicators 

Conversely, if your counterpart is in a country like India, where communication style is generally indirect, do not pressure them for a straight yes/no answer, which could make an individual uncomfortable. Build trust by allowing them to explain themselves. Allow time for small talk when you have a conversation. Understand that they may struggle with direct communication and learn to read between the lines of what they are saying.

8. Understand Germany’s unique business culture

Build trust with Germans by being direct, accurate and punctual. Being late for appointments is a sign of disrespect for the other person’s time. Do not try to be over-familiar and learn to understand the hierarchy. If you go over a person’s head to their superior, they will lose all trust in you.

9. Building trust with French colleagues

When working with French colleagues, the trust between you should be strong enough to allow for spirited discussions. Prepare to defend ideas and challenge others. You should also expect to explain why you want someone to do something, rather than simply issuing orders.

10. Why building trust across cultures matters

Wherever you are based, invest in building trust across cultures. Groups with a low level of trust are prone to misunderstanding, resentment, time-wasting and unnecessary stress. Groups in which individuals trust one another are more creative and more productive, studies have found. Barriers to trust include lack of face-to-face contact, language barriers, lack of information sharing, over-reliance on email as opposed to conversation and failure to address the different cultures within the group.

11. Maintaining trust across cultures is an ongoing activity

Finally, once trust has been built, it must be maintained. If you are working with overseas counterparts, whether they are colleagues, customers or suppliers, you will need to visit from time to time if conditions allow or even establish a permanent presence in the country. With virtual teams, face-to-face contact is important, even if it is infrequent, and where possible, team-building activities and culturally appropriate social gatherings should be held to break down barriers. 

Understand that in some cultures, for example, in Asia, and many African and Arab countries, the relationship is with the individual, not the corporation. If an individual has worked hard to build a rapport with a customer but then leaves the company, their replacement will have to start from the beginning to rebuild trust.


Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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