“Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”

– C.S. Lewis

This wise quote is not only true for friendship but any relationship, including in business and at work. How we get to this magic point depends on our culture.  In this regard, there are two approaches: task-based and relationship-based trust building.


A new encounter?

What happens when we meet someone who approaches trust-building differently?

These are the situations when the other person can come across as aloof or lazy. Friction, misunderstandings, and frustration arise, especially when the stakes are high, such as negotiations for large contracts.   The main reason this happens is that we are judging the other person’s behavior based on our own rules while they are following theirs. Situations like this can happen both on business trips when we travel thousands of miles into another country with a different culture as well as within our local office when teams are diverse.


Task or Relationship orientation?

For individuals from task-based trust building culture, trust is built by working and accomplishing tasks together.  We work together, and therefore I can see that you are competent and I trust you. 

For those from relationship-based trust building cultures, trust is built by getting to know someone on a personal level. I get to know you, your personality, the values you stand for, and if I like you, then I trust you. 

Socializing - an important part of trust building for some

How do you navigate a situation when you don’t come from the same kind of culture? I’ll share a few tips below. 

If you come from a relationship based culture and you are dealing with task-based cultures, don’t be surprised if the other party doesn’t spend long lunches and dinners socializing to get to know you. It’s not a lack of respect or interest. In their culture, efficient use of time and therefore respect for your time is a sign of respect.   Be mindful of the clock and don’t plan lunch meetings for longer than an hour and dinners longer than 2 hours. During these social settings, the other party may come across a little too serious and uptight at first. They are just trying to be professional, which, in their culture, is how they are supposed to act with business contacts at all times. Allow your counterpart to get comfortable without pushing them to loosen up. 

If you come from a task-based culture and are dealing with a relationship based cultures, plan for and expect to have longer periods of socialization built into the schedule than you’d otherwise expect. Plan your day in a way that you are not feeling frustrated when the social encounters last longer than you’d wish. Also, don’t plan other meetings too soon afterward. For example, avoid planning another meeting after dinner as this meal may last well into the evening.   Also, don’t worry about being serious or being able to focus all evening. Your counterparts have switched from work mode the moment they entered the restaurant. Approach the encounter as if you were going to hang out with good friends. The other party will appreciate getting to know your real authentic self, not just the business-only facade. 

In both cases, a universal trick is finding common ground.


A Brazilian in Switzerland

When Pablo, a lanky pharma executive from Brazil went to Switzerland to discuss a possible partnership with a Basel based pharmaceutical giant, he felt that his negotiating partners were hard to read and distant. He tried to insert some humor in the conversations but was met with straight faces and muted laughter, if any at all.

One day, as his small group was being driven from the office to an off-site meeting, their silver Audi A7 passed in front of the headquarters of Novartis, an unusual and beautiful glass architecture. As he followed the monument with his eyes, he casually remarked to the man sitting next to him: “I wish my son could see this. He is a second-year architecture student and loves modern glass and metal buildings.”  Dirk, his Swiss counterpart’s demeanor changed immediately. He laughed and said “The deadline to select a university is close and my son hasn’t decided between art school and business. I wish he made up his mind at least”. They ended up talking about their children for the rest of the 30-minute ride, and from then on, Pablo felt that he finally got to know dirk and felt a lot more comfortable moving forward.


Lesson Learned

While many things are cultural, how we dress, eat, and build a relationship, others, like our love for our children, are universal.  Pablo accidentally found a common thread, their children, and laid the foundation for building a bridge between two people who came from significantly different cultures.


The lesson here is this:  look for what you have in common. Some things transcend cultures. 

People in relationship-based cultures naturally look for these commonalities since they place great importance on getting to know you personally. 

For task-based cultures, this skill may not come naturally, but there are clues for those who know to look for them.  Do a little background research on the person beforehand and test the waters with nearly-universal topics such as family, food, and pride in one’s country.


Starting on the right foot

Find that point, however small, that unites you and let that be the foundation to a great friendship or business relationship. 

Do you have a story of a time when you found it hard to connect with someone?  What happened?  

Share in the comment below and happy connecting!