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"I trust you" – the Different perspectives of time, trust, and hierarchy

Saskia Maarse | September 2, 2021

Imagine you are on your way to an important meeting, a job interview for example. You want to be on time and leave a good first impression. On your way you run into someone you admire, someone you respect, for example you former boss. He/she starts a long story, while you have to be at your appointment. He/she talks and talks and in the meantime you start to feel uncomfortable. If this conversation continues like this, you are going to be late. What do you do?

  1. You interrupt your former boss and tell him/her: “I am sorry for interrupting, but I am on my way to an important meeting and I have to be on time. Do you mind if we catch up some other time?”
  2. You listen to what he/she tells you and in a non-verbal way you try to show that you are in a hurry.

Being late is not an option
It probably would not surprise you that most Dutch people would pick option A. The ‘agenda system’ in Netherlands has become part of our daily live. Everyone has their own agenda where everything is planned from hour to hour. Being on time is an important part of this. Being late is considered as rude and ruins the schedule. On top of that, you can be seen as unreliable, someone you cannot count on.

To work together, we should be able to trust each other. However, it’s different per culture where trust is based on. Here we can distinguish between task-oriented and relationship-oriented countries.

Task-oriented countries
Examples of task-oriented countries: USA, Denmark, Australia, and the Netherlands.

  • In these countries, people trust each other based on knowledge and skills. “You perform well, so I trust you.”
  • Sticking to schedules, doing what you promise and delivering your products or services on time (and with good quality) are very important.
  • Trust can be build early on.
  • Deals are written down.

Relationship-oriented countries
Examples of relationship-oriented countries: Brazil, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and China, but also Belgium.

  • In these countries trust is based on personal contact and less about the task: “We have a close relationship, so I trust you.”
  • Deals are agreed through verbal approval: “You have my word.”
  • In relationship-oriented societies it usually takes longer before trust is built. This is preceded by several dinners beforehand.

In the Netherlands the written agreement is seen as the ‘contract’. Many Dutch assume this is the same in other countries. But in the relationship-oriented countries, this written agreement does not mean as much. Here the personal contact is the ‘contract’.

Power Distance
There is another reason why the Dutch will pick option A. The Netherlands, just like Denmark and Sweden, is a country with little power distance, where parents teach their kids to be independent, also towards people and the authorities. Managers and employees see themselves as equals. This makes it easier to interrupt each other. In cultures with a high-power distance children learn that you do not always have the right to speak. Only when you get permission, you ask or comment something in a polite way. In these cultures it is often impolite to interrupt someone with a high position.

The Main Takeaway
Regardless, if you chose option A or B, your culture has influenced your decision. Before working together with people of other cultural backgrounds, it is always wise to familiarise yourself with their perceptions of time, trust, and power distance. This defends against hasty judgements and helps you recognize potential points of friction before they become problematic.

About Saskia

Saskia Maarse is an intercultural speaker, trainer and author. She writes and speaks about Dutch culture in both business / professional and social life. In her blogs, books and professional talks and workshops she uncovers the origins of deep-rooted Dutch characteristics. Saskia also explains what we can learn from and about other cultures – in areas like communication, leadership and human behaviour.

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