Trust is an important issue when working across cultures. Deciding whether you trust someone or not will influence how you work with that person in the present and in the future. Despite the importance of trust, we take trust for granted. What I mean by that is that we rarely examine what trust is or how trust is built, and what is different within intercultural contexts. In addition, we do not realize that how we grant or withhold trust has also been culturally learned.
Let’s explore what you mean when you say you trust someone or you do not trust someone. Let’s also examine the criteria you use when granting trust or withholding trust, and where you learned that criteria. Trust is a complex topic and I do not claim that this article will solve all the challenges of building intercultural trust. However, it is essential to begin to take some steps toward understanding trust for yourself, as well as what you can do differently. While everyone pays lip service to how important trust is, few examine it closely, discuss it openly or decide to take action to cultivate trust.
Unreliable Criteria for Withholding Trust
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is the prevalence of cynicism. That is an attitude that is summed up in a statement I hear frequently: “You know, Sherwood, in business today you can’t trust anyone anymore.” While people of all ages and cultures who say that believe they are being worldly wise, I challenge the wisdom of beginning every new business relationship with your mind already made up that you will withhold trust. Is that your attitude, as well?
If so, when you withhold trust, how are you making the decision to not trust someone? There are two unreliable criteria involved in this. The first is the cynicism I mentioned above. That is unreliable because it is simply not possible to defend an opinion that every person of any culture that you encounter in business is not worthy of your trust. Obviously, many are.
The second unreliable criteria is based on regarding trust as a feeling. This is especially unreliable within intercultural contexts, because of all the unfamiliar body and vocal intonation cues that you are reacting to automatically. For example, if according to your cultural standard someone stands too close to you or too far from you, makes too much eye contact or not enough, speaks too quietly or too loudly, you can experience varying degrees of discomfort. If you use your discomfort as evidence justifying your mistrust, then you are sure to be mistaken. I am not saying that the feeling aspect of trusting or not trusting is never reliable. However, I am claiming that it is rarely reliable within intercultural contexts.
The Linguistic Trap of Generalizations
Let’s look at this more fully. From a linguistic standpoint, when you say you mistrust someone, what is frequently missing is a specific domain and time frame. Here is a simple example; imagine that you loaned money to a man you worked with who promised to pay it back to you on a certain date. Imagine that he did not keep the promise and that you never heard from him again. You would be justified to say that the person was not trustworthy in the domain of paying back the money he had borrowed. However, you would likely simply say if asked that, “He is not trustworthy.”
The problem with expressing an opinion in this typical way is that you are proclaiming that he is untrustworthy in every domain for all time. It is possible that he faithfully paid back debts in the past and would continue to do so in the future. However, out of a single experience you make a general statement that brands him as untrustworthy in all domains forever.
Indeed, sometimes we even go further to the more all-encompassing generalization I mentioned earlier, “You cannot trust anyone anymore.” Furthermore, within intercultural contexts there is the risk of extending such generalizations to an entire culture. Even if you know it is politically incorrect to express such opinions, you may be making such generalizations without even realizing that you are doing it. Generalizing is a linguistic trap in which we ensnare ourselves and others without even being aware of it, regardless of our native language or culture.
Changing your habits to avoid the two unreliable criteria for withholding trust, as well as the linguistic trap of generalizations, are tangible steps that you can take to expand your ability to cultivate intercultural trust. In the next article I will give you some suggestions for other criteria that you can use on which to base your opinions of whether or not to trust someone within a business context.