Cultural trust – a basic talent against risks across borders ?

Author: Manu Steens

In this contribution I give my own opinion, not that of any organization.

People often speak of ‘trust‘. But what do they mean? What kind of trust exist? Can you create it? What are the risks of not paying attention to creating trust? What if you betray trust? Is speaking the same language important?

Can you score without speaking the language? Without knowledge of each other’s cultural baggage? Who has the advantage when? Pierce the stigmas! Without knowing each other, you can’t look ahead to collaboration with each other’s. Despite all the theories and history lessons, this is not possible without trust. Without trust you can’t know the other person, you only know their stigmas.

Two types of trust

I consider for myself two types of trust: Self-confidence versus cultural trust, each of which is a function of other components:

Self-confidence = Function of (parental education; character) and

Cultural trust = Function of (growing up in close proximity; in contact with distant surroundings).

I want to talk about this ‘cultural trust’ here.


I will take Russians and Americans as an example, because they are opposites in terms of their experience of trust, but I might as well have taken the Dutch and the Chinese.

When you talk to people about Russians and Americans, the first impression often comes up as a judgment. Buts appearance deceives, are Americans really superficial and are Russians really that arrogant?

That’s what we see from them. However, it is better to consider cultural trust as a topic here, rather than profane vocabulary. In the book “The Culture Map” by Erin Meyer, there is a continuum from purely task-based cultural trust to pure relationship-based trust. Here the USA is on the side of almost purely task-based trust and is Russia very much on the side of relationship-based trust.

How is this defined?

Task-based: Trust is built through business-related activities. Working relationships are easily forged and dissolved again, depending on the practical situation. You consistently do a good job, so you are reliable. I enjoy working with you. I trust you.

Relationship-based: Trust is built by eating together, having a drink together in the evening and conversations at the coffee machine. Working relationships are slowly but surely being built. I got to know you in a personal way. I’ve spent private time with you. I am good friends with others who trust you. I trust you.

To do business

This means that in order to do business (of all kinds: financial-economic to political agreements) between Russians and Americans, both must be aware of each other’s cultural attitude of trust.

It used to be thought that the American way of doing business was the ‘way to go’. Americans talk very fluently about their very personal issues but never show their truly vulnerable side. This seems very confusing to a Russian: just when he thinks the American wants to make a close friendship, he says: “It was pleasant, goodbye”. The Russian doesn’t hear about him anymore. For an average Russian, this is an unreliable attitude, which in the long run creates distrust of which the American is unaware.

Conversely, an American who wants to do business with a Russian will have to do his best to get into privacy with the Russian. Storming in and trying to make a deal won’t get him there. Then he is dismissed. Not because the Russian is so arrogant, but precisely because knowing each other well personally is so important. If, in his opinion, not enough time is put into this, not much will come of doing business.

This means that in order to be able to work together successfully, it is best to have a mediator present. Someone or a small team of people who have cultural experience with both parties.

In my opinion, this is one of the cores of many misunderstandings in the world on a small, but also on a large scale. In the worst case, misunderstandings lead to things that no one wants, such as brother murder.

To this end, work must be done to really get to know each other, especially at times when people, when they are young, are still receptive to learn this.


If we want to make the planet a better and safer place for future generations, schools should pay attention to:

  • types of communication
  • each other’s culture
  • learning to work on trust
  • empathy
  • really getting to know the other in their culture.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields.

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