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Trust is the social glue that holds business relationships together. Business partners who trust each other spend less time and energy protecting themselves from being exploited, and both sides achieve better economic outcomes in negotiations. But, how do managers decide whether to trust a potential partner outside of their business? And how does culture influence this decision-making process?

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To answer these questions, we interviewed 82 managers from 33 different nations in four regions of the world identified by the World Bank as the engines of the global economy: East Asia, the Middle East and South Asia, North America and Europe, and Latin America. These managers were diverse in terms of gender and age, and they represented various industries and business functions.

We asked them, “How do people in your culture determine if a potential business partner is trustworthy?” Their answers revealed systematic cultural differences in how trustworthiness is judged that have implications for how managers should approach these partnerships. Our findings have been published in The International Journal of Conflict Management.

Although not everyone in a cultural region determines trustworthiness in the same way, the cultural similarities and differences we observed led us to several conclusions, building on the previous work of one of us (Jeanne). The variations we observed — in both the criteria that managers used to assess trustworthiness and the way they collected information to make that assessment — are associated with two cultural factors. The first factor is how much people in that culture are willing to trust strangers in everyday social interactions. The second is what’s called cultural tightness-looseness, which is the extent to which social behavior is closely monitored in a particular culture and violations of social norms are sanctioned.

Here is an overview of what we found in each region. Further below we discuss what this means for managers looking to build business partnerships across cultures.

North American and European Cultures: Openness

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Managers from Western cultures told us they generally assumed a potential new business partner would be trustworthy. For example, one respondent from the U.S. said, “We operate under the principle [that] everyone can be trusted until proven otherwise.” Another person from Italy said something similar: “We tend to believe that people are trustworthy.”

Nevertheless, managers in this region also tested those assumptions; “trust but verify,” as one U.S. respondent told us. They did so primarily by evaluating the potential partner’s behavior at the negotiation table: “See if [the] person is forthcoming; ask a question you know the answer to,” a U.S. manager advised. A respondent from Germany explained, “If you have someone who’s pretty open to you, who shares a lot of information, I think it feels like he’s trusting in you, so you trust in him. … If it’s only give, and there’s no take, or if there’s only a take from his side and no give, then it’s not a fair dialogue.”

Managers in Western culture do not rely on a social relationship to ensure trust — in fact, it’s just the opposite. “It doesn’t matter how nice the people are, or how much you like them. If they don’t have enough business, they don’t have enough business,” a respondent from the U.S. said. An Italian manager explained: “You have to separate the personal relationship from the work.”

East Asian Cultures: Competency

East Asian managers described what amounted to a three-stage process to determine trustworthiness. First, they seek information about a potential business partner’s reputation. “In order to trust, we have to know the [person] first,” said a Korean manager. A favored way to do this is to rely on a third-party introduction, which we call “brokerage.” A Japanese respondent explained it this way: “If Mr. B introduces Mr. C to Mr. A, then Mr. A would trust Mr. C, because Mr. A trusts Mr. B. And Mr. A knows that if Mr. C performs very badly, then Mr. B will be very embarrassed, and the relationship between Mr. A and Mr. B gets very weak.”

Reputation, East Asian managers explained, is hard to establish, so people and companies with good reputations are intent on maintaining them.

Meeting the potential partner to test their competency is stage two of the trust-building process. Since it is difficult to explicitly say no in these cultures, East Asian managers seek to determine whether the potential partner can deliver the business. They explained:

“It’s not like [I’m] testing [whether] I trust you, [I’m] testing if you can do it.” — manager from China

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“Chinese exaggerate so [you] have to check [them] out yourself. Focus on their capabilities.” — manager from China

“Sometimes people [say they can do] things [that] they cannot do. It’s a big mistake and you lose trust completely [in these people].” — manager from Japan

If the potential partner’s competency checks out, East Asian managers move to the third stage, where they engage in more social, relationship-building activities. A manager from Japan explained that they tend to socialize after the business meeting, so as not to do anything to upset the burgeoning relationship. “[Having a] business dinner after successful or important meetings is fairly typical,” they said.

Middle Eastern and South Asian Cultures: Respect

Respect is the primary criterion we found Middle Eastern and South Asian managers use to judge trustworthiness. Managers from these cultures explained that to expand their businesses they had to work with others who were not members of their immediate family, clan, or tribe. They understood that a potential business partner might not share their values, but they sought out people who at least respected their values. “Show[ing] that you respect their way of living can play a big role in smoothing the [beginning of the relationship],” as one manager from India told us.

Middle Eastern and South Asian managers said that they verify, before they trust. “It’s not, I trust, [then] I verify; it’s I verify first, then I trust,” said a manager from Lebanon.

As in East Asia, managers from this region research their potential partner’s reputation. One respondent from Palestine said, “I talk to other people in the community who might know this person, ask them about him [and] whether I should move forward or not.” This process might include brokerage: “I try to always build [a] personal relationship with my clients. They don’t always become friends, but … when they introduce me to potential clients, my potential clients trust me because there’s someone in the middle [whom they] trust,” said a manager from Turkey.

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Negative information at this stage of the process is a signal to move on, but positive information then needs to be confirmed. “You should double-check or ask more than one person…” a manager from Kuwait cautioned.

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The final judgment of trustworthiness in this region often comes after a series of social engagements that provide an opportunity to assess respect:

“People go [to] … dinners. … They have a couple [of] drinks. They talk about stuff, life and everything. So they try to get to know each other’s character, and so … decide there whether to trust that person or not.” — manager from Turkey

“We like hospitality, so you should show some generosity, so people feel that … you’re willing to give.” — manager from Saudi Arabia

Latin American Cultures: Similar Values

In Latin American cultures, the social relationship comes first, and the business after. Shared values are the primary criteria for judging trustworthiness:

“Find out if (they) have same values as you do.” — manager from Brazil

“They trust me because they think that I am similar to them.” — manager from Colombia

“If you perceive that there are values that are not shared … that is where you decide [whether] things can continue … or [whether you’re] not really willing to have the next conversation.” — manager from Bolivia

Latin American managers rely on the opinions of others as a first step in determining the trustworthiness of a potential new business partner. The primary focus of managers in this region was weeding out those with poor reputations. A manager from Mexico told us, “If you heard one guy wants to make an alliance with you, and three or four former shareholders say that he’s very corrupt … I think that’s very, very important, because … if he stole from other guys, he will [probably] do it to you.”

Assessing shared values, however, required making a personal connection:

“Before negotiation, engage in social contact — no business talk.” — manager from Nicaragua

“[Small talk] in Latin America is very important…and a good way that we’ve found to do it is by sharing a meal. We try not to talk business. We just get to meet each other … see if we have things in common. Most of the times, we do.” — manager from Mexico

“When you get them talking about their family, about something that they like talking about … even if you try … you cannot hide yourself … for the whole two hours. There will be like five minutes where you’re going to show your true colors, right? That’s what you want to see. … Are they open? Are they transparent? Or are they shady? Are they suspicious? [You want to see] their true self, the one that you’re going to be working with.” — manager from Chile

What Explains the Differences?

The differences we observed are connected to cultural levels of trust and how “tight” or “loose” the culture is. Again, those terms refer to the extent to which social behavior is monitored and violations of social norms carry consequences.

How Do You Assess Trust with Potential Business Partners?

In North America or Europe: Recognize that the test for trustworthiness is openness and consistency at the negotiation table. Be prepared to share business-relevant information regarding priorities and the reasons behind them, and it’s fair to expect the same in return. Accept that a cordial social relationship is a benefit but not necessary for trust between business partners.

In East Asia: Ask someone who has worked with you and the other party to make an introduction. Be prepared to demonstrate your competency to deliver your end of the new business relationship, by showing examples or providing prototypes. Join in post-negotiation social events to celebrate the new relationship.

In the Middle East or South Asia: Understand that respect reigns. Actively seek opportunities to signal respect for differences in cultural norms. Offering or reciprocating hospitality is a good start.

In Latin America: Participate fully in social activities. Be prepared to be open about yourself, your interests and hobbies, and your family situation. Learn about the partner’s business and community, including their family and values, so that you can move the conversation beyond small talk.

Keep in mind that cultural differences are a matter of emphasis. For example, our findings do not imply that respect, which we found to be key in the Middle East and South Asian cultures, is altogether unimportant in Western culture; just that it is more important in Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures. Likewise, our research does not imply that every manager in every country in a region is going to approach the challenge of determining whether you are a trustworthy potential business partner exactly as we described. That said, understanding what is normative in a culture can give you useful information as you endeavor to build trust with counterparts in different parts of the world.

If you want to explore these concepts further and understand how they apply to you, you can join this simulation and webinar taught by Jeanne.

Ground Floor

RoomRoom TypeSq FtDepartmentsCapacity
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0001T LAB 871
AESHM (AESHM)
48
0001AOF SER 139
0001BOF SER 128
AESHM (AESHM)
0002UNUSE 39
0003CORR 148
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0004ACA OF 184
0005ACA OF 178
AESHM (AESHM)
0006OF OTH 136
0006AACA OF 135
AESHM (AESHM)
4
0006WACA OF 265
0007EGA OF 549
AESHM (AESHM)
0007WACA OF 282
0008OF SER 134
AESHM (AESHM)
0008AACA OF 109
0008BACA OF 109
AESHM (AESHM)
0009EACA OF 181
0009WACA OF 177
AESHM (AESHM)
0010ACA OF 181
0011ACA OF 351
AESHM (AESHM)
0011AACA OF 181
0012ACA OF 177
AESHM (AESHM)
0013T L SR 53
0013AT L SR 78
AESHM (AESHM)
0014T L SR 123
0015MACH R 40
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0016T L SR 314
0016BT L SR 110
AESHM (AESHM)
0016CT LAB 71115
0016DT L SR 254
AESHM (AESHM)
0017ACA OF 1328
0018T L SR 138
AESHM (AESHM)
0018AT L SR 271
0018BACA OF 134
AESHM (AESHM)
0019CORR 89
0019AMACH R 510
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0019BT L SR 372
0019CC COMP 120
IT SERVICES CIO (ITCIO)
0022T L SR 3334
0022AOF STU 207
AESHM (AESHM)
4
0023T L SR 217
0023AT L SR 1226
AESHM (AESHM)
0024T L SR 150
0024NT L SR 23
AESHM (AESHM)
0025MACH R 184
0025AMACH R 11
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0026ADM OF 395
0027ADM OF 146
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0027AADM OF 131
0027BADM OF 129
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0028GA OF 501
0029CONF 289
AESHM (AESHM)
10
0029AOF SER 111
0030OF SER 438
AESHM (AESHM)
0030AACA OF 166
0030BACA OF 166
AESHM (AESHM)
0030CACA OF 166
0030DACA OF 166
AESHM (AESHM)
0030EACA OF 1736
0031CLR OF 1031
AESHM (AESHM)
0031AADM OF
ACA OF
224
0034GA OF 412
HUMAN DV/FAM ST (HD FS)
0034AACA OF 126
0034BOF SER 35
AESHM (AESHM)
0036RES L
ACA OF
134
0037CUSTDN 22
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0037AC STOR 54
0038GA OF 206
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0038ARES L
ACA OF
173
C0034CORR 85
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
C0041CORR 1246
C0044CORR 227
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
C0045CORR 939
C0046CORR 170
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
C0047CORR 205
C0050CORR 908
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
E0051ELEV 27
E0055ELEV 24
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
M0019MACH R 420
M0020MACH R 1837
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
M0020AMACH R 59
M0020BCUSTDN 28
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
R0021MREST R 136
R0021WREST R 122
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
S0040STAIRWAY 97
S0042STAIRWAY 291
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
S0048STAIRWAY 107
S0052STAIRWAY 216
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
S0053STAIRWAY 69
V0139VEST 39
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
V0143VEST 42
V0149VEST 42
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)

Floor 1

RoomRoom TypeSq FtDepartmentsCapacity
0101ADM OF 1152
0101AOF SER 156
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0102CUSTDN 36
0103REST R 103
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0104OF OTH 178
0105OF OTH 177
HUMAN SCI EXT (HS EO)
0106OPEN L 54012
0107OF OTH 181
HUMAN SCI EXT (HS EO)
0108OPEN L 41212
0109OF OTH 177
HUMAN SCI EXT (HS EO)
0110OF OTH 181
0111OF OTH 177
HUMAN SCI EXT (HS EO)
0112C COMP
ADM OF
298
0112AC STOR 13
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0113OPEN L 90543
0114ADM OF 321
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0115MACH R 532
0115BCUSTDN 378
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0116CLASS 57130
0117CLASS 3779
ISU GENRL INSTR (ISUGI)
214
0117AMACH R 30214
0117BCL SER 49
ISU GENRL INSTR (ISUGI)
214
0117BACL SER 171214
0118MEET 1135
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
42
0118AMEET S 149
0118BMEET S 10
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0118CADM OF 88
0118DADM OF 92
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0118EOF SER 8
0118FOF OTH 37
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0119CLASS 57130
0120CORR 238
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0122STAIRWAY 338
0123REST R 151
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0130CORR 1186
0131CLR OF 1054
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0131AOF SER 144
0131BADM OF 116
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0131COF SER 104
0131DADM OF 128
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0131DAC STOR 72
0131DBMACH R 11
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0131EADM OF 132
0131FADM OF 132
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0131GADM OF 132
0131HOF SER 270
SCHOOL OF ED (SOE)
0131JADM OF 144
0131KADM OF 136
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0133CLR OF
OF SER
ADM OF
715
0133AADM OF 129
SCHOOL OF ED (SOE)
0133BADM OF 1326
0133CADM OF 132
SCHOOL OF ED (SOE)
0133DADM OF 132
0133EADM OF 133
SCHOOL OF ED (SOE)
0133FADM OF 116
0133GADM OF 118
SCHOOL OF ED (SOE)
0135CLASS 77048
0140STAIRWAY 375
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0141CORR 135
0142ADM OF 222
SCHOOL OF ED (SOE)
0143CONF
ADM OF
33714
0144CORR 45
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
C0145CORR 993
C0147CORR 224
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
C0150CORR 938
E0151ELEV 27
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
E0155ELEV 37
S0148STAIRWAY 375
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
S0152STAIRWAY 263
S0153STAIRWAY 237
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
V0146VEST 712

Floor 2

RoomRoom TypeSq FtDepartmentsCapacity
0200T LAB 1117
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
18
0201CUSTDN 36
0203REST R 128
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0205T L SR 1721
0206T LAB 772
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
12
0207T L SR 841
0208T L SR 174
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
30
0208AT L SR 109
0208BT L SR 101
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0208CT L SR 133
0209CONF 277
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
11
0209AC STOR 14
0210T LAB 1046
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
24
0210BT L SR 5
0210NMACH R 51
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0211GA OF 564
0212C STOR 101
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0213CLASS 73936
0214CUSTDN 27
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0214AREST R 73
0215ACA OF 263
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0215AACA OF 150
0215AAOF SER 37
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0218NMACH R 77
0219RES LS 574
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0219ARES L 171
0220ADM OF 378
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0220AOF SER 78
0220BACA OF 116
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0220CACA OF 117
0220DACA OF 122
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0220EACA OF 133
0220GC STOR 11
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
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0221WRES L 383
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0222MEET 2497
0222BACA OF 129
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0222CACA OF 131
0223CONF 134
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
8
0224GA OF 291
0224AACA OF 120
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0224BACA OF 122
0224CACA OF 122
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0224DACA OF 126
0225INACT 12
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
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0229RES L 562
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0229ARES LS 171
0230RES LS 78
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0230ARES L 566
0230BRES LS 103
FOOD SC/HN-HSCI (FSHNH)
0230CRES L 552
C0241CORR 995
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
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C0245CORR 1017
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
C0247CORR 210
C0250CORR 954
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
C0253CORR 286
E0251ELEV 27
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
E0255ELEV 37
S0240STAIRWAY 336
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
S0243STAIRWAY 299
S0248STAIRWAY 328
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
S0252STAIRWAY 150

Floor 3

RoomRoom TypeSq FtDepartmentsCapacity
0301SEM RM 733
HUMAN DV/FAM ST (HD FS)
40
0302GA OF 241
0303OF SER
GA OF
CONF
340
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
10
0304ADM OF 146
0305ADM OF 145
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0306ADM OF 181
0307T LAB
OPEN L
1292
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
42
0307AT L SR 27
0308CUSTDN 11
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
0309ACA OF 129
0310ADM OF 181
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
0311ADM OF 101
0312MEDIA
MEET
MED SR
(DISTANCE EDUCATION)
669
H SCI ADMIN (HS AD)
26
0313T LAB 75925
0313AT L SR 19
AESHM (AESHM)
0314REST R 46
C0304CORR 77
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
C0308CORR 77
C0344CORR 369
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
C0345CORR 451
C0347CORR 443
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
E0351ELEV 27
S0342STAIRWAY 187
ISU GENRL M/SRV (ISUG)
S0348STAIRWAY 183