Sharing meals is a meaningful tool for trust building in nearly all cultures. But in some cultures, sharing drinks — particularly alcoholic drinks — is equally important.
I once conducted a training program for a German couple moving to Japan, assisted by Hiroki, a wise and entertaining Japanese culture specialist. The German asked Hiroki how to get his Japanese colleagues to tell him what was really going on: “They are so formal and quiet. I worry if I am not able to build the necessary trust, I won’t get the information I need from them.”
Hiroki thought quietly for a moment and then responded with only a small trace of humor in his eyes: “Best strategy is to drink with them.”
“To drink?” the German client questioned.
“Yes, drink until you fall down.”
When Hiroki said this, I thought back to my first-ever ride in the Tokyo metro, when I saw several groups of Japanese businessmen stumbling through the station as they traveled home after a long evening of well-lubricated socializing. I now realized they were following Hiroki’s advice — quite literally.
If you look at Japan on the Trusting scale, you will see that it is a relationship-based culture, though not as far to the right as China or India. During the day, the Japanese generally take a task-based approach — but the relationship building that happens in the evening can be critical to business success.
In Japanese culture, where group-harmony and avoiding open conflict are overriding goals, drinking provides an opportunity to let down your hair and express your real thoughts. Drinking is a great platform for sharing your true inner feelings (what are called honne rather than tatemae feelings) as well as for recognizing where bad feelings or conflict might be brewing and to strive to address them before they turn to problems. Under no circumstances should the discussions of the night before be mentioned the next day. Drinking alcohol is therefore an important Japanese bonding ritual not only with clients, but also within one’s own team.
Many Japanese use drinking to forge connections, as captured by the bilingual expression nomunication, stemming from the Japanese verb nomu (“to drink”). Japanese salespeople frequently woo their clients over drinks, knowing that although explicit deal making is never done during this type of socializing, a deal is rarely won with- out it. Of course, drinking to build trust is not just a Japanese custom. Across East Asia, whether you are working in China, Thailand, or Korea, doing a substantial amount of drinking with customers and collaborators is a common step in the trust-building process.
Many people from task-based cultures don’t get it. “Why would I risk making a fool of myself in front of the very people I need to impress?” they wonder. But that is exactly the point. When you share a round of drinks with a business partner, you show that person you have nothing to hide. And when they “drink until they fall down” with you, they show you that they are willing to let their guard down completely. “Don’t worry about looking stupid,” Hiroki reassured our German manager, who had begun wringing his hands nervously. “The more you are willing to remove social barriers in the evening, the more they will see you as trustworthy.”
Alcohol is not the only way to build a business relationship. If you don’t drink, you can certainly find other ways to partake in the fun; in Japan, a round of karaoke or a trip to the spa can do wonders. And in Arab cultures, where alcohol is avoided, you can forget beer and relax instead over a cup of tea.
This excerpt adapted with permission from “The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business” (2014) by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer, from PublicAffairs.