Genuine Relationships Need Context

People are likely to back away from relationships that don’t seem honest or straightforward. But cultural differences can easily skew perceptions. What is perfectly acceptable in one culture is completely unacceptable in another.

Deeply relationship-driven people (for example, from India and China) have extensive networks from which to draw context. They know the abilities, skills, and idiosyncrasies of people they meet because of the network. Connections almost invariably come through their “in group,” their family or close business contacts. As a result, relationships extend beyond the individual, to other group members and even their family. This strong, deeply rooted network helps minimize misunderstandings.

But cross cultural attempts to build relationships often get into trouble. This is especially true today, with so many business reaching out globally.

The Collectivist-Individualist Relationship Gap

Individualist cultures can thrive on transient relationships. In America, Canada, or England, deep, introspective relationships often evolve after business has been established. This is completely opposite most Eastern and Middle Eastern cultures, where a strong relationship is needed before considering business.

Easterners are accustomed to dealing with a complex in-group relationship. They expect the support of their network, of their connections, and of the extended connections between groups, to foster reliable introductions. Where information is lacking, the network will likely provide it. Where context is lacking, the network can fill it in.

When the network is missing, missteps are made. Both parties end up wondering about curious behaviors, unintelligible rituals, and questionable practices of their newfound contact.

First Impressions Are Everything

Take the story of Sameer Kshirsagar Reddy, an Indian business development manager based in Bangalore. To try to appeal to his new American clients, Sameer adopts what he thinks will be a friendly, Americanized version of his name, “Sam K.” Following the Indian tradition of using his last name first, his new LinkedIn profile is under the name “Reddy S. K.,” while his Indian friends know him on Facebook as “Sameer S. K.,” and his Skype name is “sam_kr” (mostly because that’s what was available). Armed with his new (and old) online identities, Sameer begins marketing.

Unfortunately, Sameer always runs into the same problem: After getting to know a new American prospect and exchanging a few emails, the prospects stop corresponding.

The Western executives he is trying to reach out to aren’t very interested in working with “Sam K.,” an individual trying to mass-market IT services by email. To make matters worse, his prospects are confused by all his different names, such as “Sameer S. K.” and “Reddy S. K.” Are these the same people? Or is there some misunderstanding? Or worse, is this some sort of a scam? At the very least, it’s a nightmare to keep straight and frankly, probably not worth the effort — at least, so goes the American customer’s thinking.

Sam’s attempts to emulate the American culture instead alienates his clients, and raises questions in their mind about Sam’s sincerity.

Consistency Versus Context

Americans in particular want to see consistency. It helps to compensate for the lack of information from a strong in-group network, but it’s also part of the business culture. They expect a professional profile and a consistent representation of who the individual is. Americans almost unerringly use the same name for all professional contacts. Business history, whether on LinkedIn or Facebook, supports this same consistency, and most often business networks and personal networks are kept strictly separate. The idea of creating a new LinkedIn profile to start marketing is counter-intuitive. A new profile means erasing the past and starting fresh, as an inexperienced first-time employee. Why would someone want to do that?

Cultures that have extensive contextual networks to support their efforts need to adapt when transitioning to individualist cultures. At the same time, Western, individualist cultures will benefit from understanding the intricacies of relationship-oriented cultures. Both cultures will benefit by taking the time to learn the other’s business cultural preferences and practices.

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