Whom Can We Trust?

Posted on May 18th, 2015


“Fide sed cui vide”, says a famous Latin quote: “trust, but be careful whom you trust”.

I was first exposed to this sentence during my studies at the Göttingen university. Studying law there wasn’t a small thing, as I was walking in the steps of a long, impressive list of prestigious alumnis, some having helped put in place the influential German law system. At the time I had no idea I’d eventually become a businessman: I was more concerned by the rigor and moral values behind the judicial system I was being taught. No matter the career you embrace later, you can’t ignore where you come from…

From those days, I’ve kept in mind that choosing associates is a judgment that has to be made not only from a business perspective but also from a values-based perspective. The law is, first and foremost, a social contract between people who wish to coexist in a constructive, fair manner. Business is hardly more than that: mutually beneficial agreements between individuals and/or companies. My win is your win, and vice versa. Therefore, what you crucially need is the capacity to identify reliable associates, people who won’t let you down as long as you won’t let them down. It’s not always so easy at first, but it’s a skill you learn to master over time.

Which brings me back to “Fide sed cui vide”. This overused motto sounds like stating the obvious and still, when you stop and think about it, we too often tend to put such an emphasis on the second part while the premise of the sentence is just that: “trust”. Trust, yes. This is what this sentence is about. Not “freak out and be defiant of everyone”, but “trust carefully, trust with awareness, but trust nonetheless until you have good reason not to”. This, at least, is how I understand it: not a call to paranoia but a one for a responsible, adult notion of trust.


But people will often distrust first, and keep distrusting until you give them a good reason to trust. This isn’t how it should be. And certainly not when building a business partnership. You must be smart, sure. Smart and ready to outsmart whomever would try and abuse your trust, that is. But trust has to be given in the first place. This is likely to get others to trust you in return. People do feel mistrust. People feel uncomfortable around mistrust: it targets their defense mechanisms. Just be trustful and be ready. Do not fear others thinking you are naive: this, on the contrary, is your best asset! Put your pride aside and do let them think you’re naive. If they try and abuse your “naivety”, they’ll be all the more surprised when you’ll react sharply, and you’ll have the advantage! But on the other hand, if they’re themselves to be trusted, you’ll immediately create a strong, solid bond, one that’ll make your relationship fruitful!

Now this is basically what I believe should be the “trust cookbook” but my experience as a company manager in foreign countries has lead me to realize that, as with everything, trust is more of cultural relative than a universal absolute. To take a simple example, this is pretty obvious if you compare the working relationship you can build with a Chinese from Hong Kong and a Chinese from mainland China. Both are Chinese, both share the same culture, however the difference lies in the experience they have of international communities. Hong Kong people have learned to communicate with foreigners, to deal with them and to develop a “language” that allows cultural values not to clash. If I make business with people from Hong Kong, I know where I stand. Make it a mainland Chinese, I get easily confused and so, probably, do they. We simply do not have the same expectations from a business partner, neither do we have a similar conception of what the word “trust” means.

Another example, crazy as it seems! In India, asking personal questions is usually perceived as a sign of interest and curiosity, a behavior that’ll likely make others trust you. In Cambodia, asking personal questions is something to avoid at all cost, as it means you are trying to dig-up compromising information about others, to use against them! Wanna gain the trust of an Indian? Ask personal questions. Wanna gain the trust of a Khmer, just don’t ask anything! Westerners would be somewhere in between, I guess: they’ll feel insulted by what they’ll perceive as a Khmer’s lack of interest, and just as insulted by what they’ll perceive as an Indian’s excessive, inappropriate curiosity.

Those are but two examples out of many. Like anything from privacy to work ethics, trust is a language you have to re-learn whenever you travel, live or work in a different country. As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned you have to stay ahead of such things, to learn “the language behind the language” before you lose control of things. People’s trust is an easy thing to lose if you’re not paying attention to those things.

Take the simple word “no”, for instance! In the West, “no” is not a bad word, not an outrageous thing to say. In Asia, “no” is at best an embarrassing thing to say (India), at worst an insult (South Korea). And this is all the more complicated when it has to be said in the context of a company. Westerners will not hesitate to say “no” to their boss if they believe it is essential. They’ll certainly take precautions -you don’t tell your boss to go to hell even in France, where people are so outspoken- but if they deem a task impracticable or unnecessary, they will kindly let you know. Asians would find themselves in a very annoying situation doing that. For one thing, an Asian boss wouldn’t usually tolerate it: saying “no” is just as good as handing a resignation letter. For another thing, there is a whole culture of hierarchy that makes the whole thing near unthinkable anyway. So more than often they will say “yes”, then they won’t do the task, or they’ll do it poorly. By asking them something they can’t or won’t do, you put them in an impossible position, because as a Westerner you expect them to do as they say and you’re likely to blame them when you’ll realize they haven’t. But they thought you expected them to be respectful “yes men”, and they won’t understand why they won’t be rewarded for being just that! By saying “yes” when they mean “no”, on the other hand, they put you in an impossible position because you can’t really ever know what to expect and this is no way to run a business. Finally, you might quickly end-up in a position where they won’t trust you because they’ll feel you are a lunatic who doesn’t understand anything; and you won’t trust them either because you’ll feel they don’t live by their word.

So, how do you solve this? Well, there’s no miracle recipe, but seeding and growing an awareness of cultural differences in company policies will help. As a Western manager, who expects a Western quality of service, you have to let your collaborators know that “no” isn’t a word you’ll take as an insult, than you actually need them to say “no” when they mean “no”, that you will value their honesty when it comes to admitting what they are willing and able to perform and what they are not. You have to help them understand that a “no” can sometimes pinpoint a problem, then help you find ways to solve it. That a “no” can sometimes help you get a better understanding of the day-to-day realities of your business and improve both service and employees’ working conditions. That this is how your business will grow in quality. You basically need to do something as apparently absurd as to reward the “no”. I’m not kidding you! Just encourage them to send you to hell because if they won’t, you’re gonna live in a dark, dark world where nothing doesn’t mean anything anymore!

On the other hand, let’s be realistic: if an employee has been taught from early childhood that saying “no” to an elder or anyone that’s above them in any hierarchy is no less than a heinous crime, you won’t have them adopt a new behavior overnight. Some will, most won’t. Or won’t before a long while at least. Nevertheless, they can be valuable employees, to be trusted and performing a remarkable job, so it’s not like you can ignore all those qualities just because of their incapacity to say “no”. So you have to learn what I would call “tacit codes”. When you’ve been living long enough in a country like India, you slowly get to identify what kind of “yes” means “no”, what kind means “maybe” and what kind really means “yes”. It’s very subtle, it’s all in the tone, the body language, the eyes even, and the way the person you’re talking to is more or less straight-forward in they acceptation of your request. I can’t give you a magic formula to get it all: it’s experience, it’s something you have to learn by yourself. Once you got it, it’s more likely that you will avoid misunderstandings, for the “no that means yes” will not leave you with impossible expectations: you’ll simply find another way, or another person, to get what you need; or you’ll try to figure out why this hidden “no” was, in fact, a necessary “no”. And you’ll also learn to use that language when facing “important” locals such as immigration or high rank officials, who certainly wouldn’t like you to throw a “no” to their face.

I’ve learned from experience that “multicultural trust” is built out of those two things: tell what your cultural expectations are as clearly as possible, and show that you are capable of understanding –sometimes even bowing to– the other’s own culture! The first will make them more comfortable dealing with a foreign manager or colleague, and they won’t feel cheated or betrayed when you behave like a Westerner. The second will show that you have consideration for them and their culture, and will help you not to feel cheated when they behave like Asians. When in Rome

And because all roads lead to Rome, I’ll conclude with yet another Latin quote, which pretty sums up what both trust and expatriation are all about: “Do, ut des” or, in plain English, “Give something, so something can be given in return”.