Cult of Personality

Dec. 21, 2004
In some countries, popularity means business.

Back when we were children, most of us craved popularity. In the closed environment of school, it was easy to determine which of the children were the most popular. Their friends crowded around them when they walked the halls, and they never ate alone in the cafeteria. (Violent school environments were the exception, where gangs banded together for their own protection, and the leaders might be feared rather than liked.) As we become adults, popularity loses some of its luster. Social skills remain desirable, but other factors are more important. Popularity isn't enough. A good boss, employee, or co-worker needs to be reliable, knowledgeable, and ethical. If they're also affable, that's good--but most of us know friendly, outgoing people who are unreliable, incompetent, or dishonest. In North America, congeniality is rarely the main factor in whether or not we do business with someone. Take this example: Assume that you want a specific product that is sold by two competing salesmen. Both offer an identical item, and after-sale service isn't a factor. Salesman A is likable and engaging. Salesman B is disdainful and remote--not agreeable at all--but offers you the product at a 20 percent discount. Which salesman will you do business with? Most North Americans will choose Salesman B, even though he's a bit of a jerk. We might feel the need to apologize to charming Salesman A--but, after all, business is business. In some jobs, we might even get into trouble if we went with the higher price just because we liked the salesman. It is difficult for North Americans to realize that this attitude isn't universal. Personal relationships are the key element in the decision-making process in much of the world. In some countries, a decision-maker has the latitude to go with his or her gut instinct. The decision to go with higher-priced, likable Salesman A would be perfectly acceptable in such countries. Throughout much of the world, a person has to know you, like you, or be related to you in order to do business with you. In Brazil, for example, influential executives traditionally are obligated to work with their "parentela" as much as possible. (A parentela is a large network of extended family members, which may include hundreds of individuals, all related to one illustrious ancestor.) Since you are unlikely to have those sorts of connections in most countries, you must work even harder to establish a strong level of rapport, or you have little chance of success--even if your product is technically better or less expensive. Of course, everyone is an individual, and it's impossible to predict with certainty how individual executives will react. However, we can identify cultures and countries in which certain patterns are likely to occur. Traditionally, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Latin American executives value their personal relationships with your company's representative more than your company's name or product reputation. Conversely, North Americans and Northern Europeans generally do not consider relationships to be a deciding factor. A recent survey we conducted in American Way (the in-flight magazine of American Airlines) examined this issue. The survey asked, "Would you do business with someone you did not personally like?" No mention was made of trust or reliability. The possible responses were limited to three: yes, no, or maybe. Broken down by citizenship, the results are as follows:

  • U.S. or Canada: 45 percent yes; 17 percent no; 38 percent maybe.
  • Europe: 73.3 percent yes; 13.3 percent no; 13.3 percent maybe.
  • Latin America: 33 percent yes; 29 percent no; 38 percent maybe.
  • Other (including Asia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean): 23 percent yes; 23 percent no; 54 percent maybe.
In the first two divisions, the trend is clear: The majority of North Americans and Europeans said they would do business with someone that they didn't like. For respondents from Latin America, there were far fewer "yes" votes. The largest number of Latin votes went to "maybe," and there were many "no" responses. The rest of the world was evenly split between "yes" and "no," with the highest proportion choosing "maybe." While this was by no means a definitive survey (the sample was small, and limited to English-speaking readers of an in-flight magazine on a U.S.-based airline), the results did reinforce considerable anecdotal data: Latins, Asians, and Middle Easterners consider personal relationships much more important than do North Americans or Europeans. Wayne A. Conaway and Terri Morrison are coauthors of Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands: How to Do Business In Sixty Countries; Dun & Bradstreet's Guide to Doing Business Around the World; and two new books, The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in the European Union and The International Traveler's Guide to Doing Business in Latin America. For more information on Getting Through Customs seminars, online database, and books, telephone 610/725-1040; fax 610/725-1074; or email [email protected]. Or write to Box 136, Newtown Square, PA 19073. Visit the Getting Through Customs Web site at

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