Edited on  December 15, 2023 by Sean Dubberke, Principal & Vice President of Learning

No matter where you are in the world, the workplace is globalized. Cultural intelligence and cultural agility are critical to success in today’s environment – reading body language, diversifying your approach to building trust and flexing your style in moments that matter all comprise what we might call an intercultural skillset. This post is the second in a series to help readers leverage insights into the eight Dimensions of Culture that comprise the CultureWizard Intercultural Model – a tool to increase your productivity across cultures.

Of all the cultural dimensions we talk about, Relationships may be the most fundamental and influential in raising awareness for improved cross-cultural communication and intercultural collaboration. The Relationships Dimension defines the variety of ways we build trust and establish relationships in the workplace. The Relationships Dimension spectrum ranges from highly “Interpersonal” to highly “Transactional” styles, and everyone will find themselves somewhere along that spectrum.

I am sure you have noticed that some people can immediately get down to productive business, while others begin a meeting with small talk and have to “warm up” before talking about the specific business situation. Some people will ask you questions about yourself and share lots of information about themselves, while others may seem uncomfortable with personal questions in the context of a business meeting.

I remember a meeting in Brazil (generally, a relatively more “Interpersonal” culture) where most of the meeting my colleagues discussed soccer (futebol), vacation plans and looking at family photos. Even though my cross-cultural awareness prepared me for their need for small talk, I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough time to talk about the business issues that brought us together.

When we eventually got around to discussing business, it was in a different way than people in a “Transactional” culture would have addressed it. It seems that no matter how well-prepared we are, working in multicultural teams, virtual or otherwise, is always challenging and potentially off-putting. If I had been unaware of this cultural value difference, being a typically Transactional US American, I would have started to talk about business prematurely, and potentially alienating the Brazilians and delaying progress toward our goals.

Understanding the Relationships Dimension in Cross-Cultural Business

If you take a look at the accompanying graphic from the CultureWizard Culture Calculator, the cultural differences between my personal work style and that of the US and Brazilian cultures becomes obvious.


When you become aware that a culture sits on the Interpersonal side of the Relationships Dimension, you can use that knowledge to build extensive connections and develop deeper interpersonal trust as prerequisites to a productive work collaboration.

Fortunately, it is relatively easy to identify people’s relationship preferences. As is the case with most cultural differences, carefully observing behavior provides insights into the invisible, underlying values. If you’re not sure, it’s always good to try a bit of light conversation at the start of a business interaction. You’ll quickly get the feedback you need to tell you how far to take it.

There are also questions you can ask yourself to decide how Interpersonal or Transactional a person is:

  • Are they really interested in how I am doing, or are they just being polite by asking, “How are you?”
  • Have they asked me any non-business questions?
  •  Have they offered any information about themselves? If so, how deep did they go?

  • Are competency and quality of my work their key decision-making criteria, or is an interpersonal connection and likeability their keys?

Remember, people don’t necessarily need to be overtly friendly to be on the Interpersonal end of the scale. As a matter of fact, there are times when highly interpersonal people will appear to be unfriendly because they need to build trust before opening up to you.

Just imagine how these pivotal factors influence negotiations, sales and marketing, product positioning, and social and business dealings.

Know When to Adapt Your Work Style

Transactional cultures have evolved such that intricate, complicated judicial and legal systems protect their rights as businesspeople. Organizations make sales and establish partnerships based on opportunity and circumstance, and less so on long-standing relationships. They enter these transactions with the assumption that if things don’t work out, they can use legal means to remedy the situation because their contracts are all-encompassing and binding.

Interpersonal cultures often believe that strong relationships and intertwining connections compel people to act honestly and fairly. This is why you spend time getting to know each other on a personal level, and why referrals from trusted colleagues and friends are so critical and take priority over anything else.

I saw this in action when I was invited to a destination wedding in Italy. A few days before the wedding, the wedding dress, which had been sent by messenger, had still not arrived and the bride’s family was completely distraught. The American father-of-the-bride was incensed and called the service, threatening them with a lawsuit. He got nowhere.

An Italian colleague standing nearby overheard the conversation and asked for the phone. He explained to the courier company how dreadfully upset the bridal party was and how this was distressing the entire family. It was casting a pallor over the entire event. He mentioned nothing about the legal requirements of the on-time delivery, only the personal impact of the dress being late. The courier became very concerned and said he would do everything possible to deliver the dress the next morning. Sure enough, the dress showed up and the crisis was averted.

Individuals who are fully aware of these diverse cultural expectations – and can adapt their work styles – are well ahead in the global business arena.

Intercultural Negotiations Require Cross-Cultural Awareness

While you may not witness many such dramatic turnarounds in your everyday business life, it’s fair to say that colleagues from cultures who have different perspectives on the importance of relationship-building will have very diverse reactions.

For example, a major US power generating supplier I know once competed for a huge contract in Malaysia when the country was upgrading its power grid. At that time, Malaysia needed to attract local attention to capture the imagination of the world’s investment communities. This contract would become an enormous win for someone. All the companies bidding for the job convened their best sales teams for the competition. After the preliminaries, the competition came down to two companies – one in North America and one in Europe.

Convinced that they could demonstrate greater efficiency and cost benefit than their competitor, the executives at the North American company were feeling very confident.

Both companies had stellar reputations and excellent histories with the Malaysians, but the Europeans had invested heavily in Malaysia and seemed committed for the long-term. They had sponsored local events and had a significant team on the ground who met frequently with government officials and other decision-makers to be sure they completely understood the decision-making process. In other words, they were culturally aware of Malaysia’s Interpersonal Relationship nature, and invested accordingly.

The negotiations that followed were intense, but you no doubt see where this story is heading. Ultimately, the Malaysians decided that their sense of trust and confidence in a long-standing partner who took time and effort to build a relationship was the most important selection criteria. They felt that if anything was to go wrong, their personal relationship with the European executives would be extremely valuable in making sure things were set right.

This high-stakes example shows how people from transactional societies are often simply unaware of the cultural potency of investing in longer-term relationships and trust.

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter whether you’re from a Transactional or Interpersonal Relationship society. To make the most of your opportunities on the global stage you must be culturally aware and constantly checking your assumptions about the needs of colleagues in the context of cultural diversity. To be most effective, take cues from your surroundings, observe the behavior of the people around you, and flex your work style in moments that matter.


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