In my day job, I deal with a lot of customers from different cultures. One of our main customers is known for hiring a highly diverse group of employees. Other customers we have are family-owned businesses or franchises owned by people from a variety of different countries, often from parts of Asia or the Middle East. Sometimes, there are cultural and/or language barriers that must be overcome in order for me to do my job and in order for them to understand what I did, why I did it, and why the cost is what it is. My ability to overcome these barriers is often the difference between the customer feeling as if they were treated either fairly or unfairly.
Fairness is a strange thing because it is rarely as simple as a balanced mathematical equation. Fairness may be conceptualized logically, but it is experienced emotionally. In any given exchange of goods or services, regardless of whatever monetary equality that may or may not exist, we either feel as if we are being treated fairly or not. A lot of selling is actually selling the idea of fairness. Something can be beneficial or advantageous to a person in every feasible, logically deduced way, but if it does not feel fair, there will be resistance and, if the deal is made in spite of this, the result will often be regret or even animosity. A person who feels as if he or she was treated unfairly will not quickly forget the experience and is unlikely to want to do dealings with the other person or company again.
Across cultures and even from person to person within a culture, there are different values, customs, and expectations that all play into what one person or another feels is fair. Without having grown up in or immersing oneself in another’s culture, it is nearly impossible to truly understand all of the factors that play into a particular person’s sense of fairness, especially when that sense of fairness is foreign or even antithetical to one’s own. For quite a long time, I struggled with my negotiations with certain customers and was even offended when dealing with them because I was being fair and they treated me as if I was trying to steal from them. Certain people just kept arguing with me in spite of the fact that we had agreed on the terms before I did my work and I stuck to my word throughout the job. Often, I would have to exert my will on the situation and overcome their resistance with force.
One day, after I finished my work and received payment, the customer offered me a cup of coffee and something to eat. I accepted the coffee, but passed on the food. He insisted on giving me something to at least take home for my family. Reluctantly, I agreed. As he was handing me my coffee, I asked him how to say, “thank you” in his native language. He told me, “Dhanyavaad means ‘thank you’ in my language (Hindi), buddy.” “Dhanyavaad, buddy” I said as I took my coffee and the food he prepared. He smiled, nodded, and said, “That is the best word to know, my friend.” I smiled back, gathered up my things and left. I did not think much of it at the time, but it struck me later. He was right. Regardless of culture or personal beliefs, what everyone wants is to be seen, heard, and appreciated. No matter how a negotiation may be going, graciousness and respect always feel fair.
– Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Gracie Jiu-Jitsu