China Series: What Is Trust?

Chinese New Year is right around the corner and to celebrate we thought we’d create a series of blog posts all about China. Today, in the fourth part of the series, we take a look at the differences in the way trust is built in Western and Chinese cultures. Enjoy!

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In part 3 of our China Series, we talked about how gift-giving is an important tool for developing business relationships – and building trust – in China. But what exactly does trust mean to a Chinese person? How does it differ from our concept in the West? An article by David De Cremer in the Harvard Business Review attempts to explore the differences in the way Western and Chinese cultures approach trust in business, and offers some very interesting insights:

Generally speaking, in the West the default is “trust.” I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, and consider you basically trustworthy until you do something that breaks our trust. In China, the default tilts more toward “distrust” – I only award you my trust after you’ve proven yourself worthy of it. This attitude is illustrated in an eloquent way by the popular Chinese saying that “early birds get shot” (qiang da chu tou niao) – which reflects the strong desire to avoid any social risks. Clearly such an attitude does not invite people easily to engage in a more Western-like trust giving process.

Partnering with Chinese companies is often an integral part of any China market entry strategy. But before any business deal in China comes a lengthy process of building trust. As De Cremer notes, trust must be guaranteed before doing business in China, whereas in the West we are often happy to enter into business with our counterparts on an assumption of trust. It may be said that De Cremer’s article offers a generalisation; individual preferences must also be considered. However at the same time the validity of his insights cannot be discredited or ignored – when it comes to China, cultural understanding forms the backbone of any successful transaction.

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