News & Research Archive

The Importance of Understanding Culture as a Salesperson

Dec 12, 2013

We are so blessed in the United States to have such a diverse cultural background. There is no place in the world where you may find so many cultures thriving within one nation. This is our greatest strength, but it may also be one of our greatest weaknesses.

With so many cultures blending together, it is difficult to harness all groups since belief systems are in so many ways in conflict with one another.

Cultures are very different and as salespeople, our ability to understand differences in a culture can allow us to better serve our clients, therefore becoming more successful.

Richard Lewis is the author of a great must-read book titled, "When Cultures Collide." In the book, Lewis begins describing an event that took place when he asked a group of Finns, Italians and Japanese to get together for a retreat to learn about cultural differences that exist among these three groups. One of the exercises that he planned was to climb a mountain together. The night before the climb was to occur it started to rain heavily. The Finns immediately asked to cancel the climb. The Italians disagreed and decided they should continue with the walk, regardless of the weather. The Japanese deferred saying that whatever the group decided was fine with them.

The Italians were able to persuade the Finns to continue with the walk, which was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. the next morning. When morning came, the Finns and the Japanese were ready to go. The Italians never showed up and instead chose to sleep in.

Lewis plots countries in relation to three categories:

  • "Linear-actives" - those who plan, schedule, organize, pursue action chains, do one thing at a time. In this group Lewis has the Germans and Swiss as examples.

  • "Multi-actives" - those lively, talkative peoples who do many things at once, planning their priorities not according to a schedule, but according to the relative thrill or importance that each appointment brings with it. Italians, Latin Americans and Arabs are members of this group.

  • "Reactives" - those cultures that prioritize courtesy and respect, listening quietly and calmly to their interlocutors and reacting carefully to the other side's proposals. Chinese, Japanese and Finns were placed in this group.

As salespeople, we need to understand not only how culture can affect the individual we may be working with, but the firm as well. Companies today are made up of several cultural diversities in which we must understand in order to be able to sell them what they need and at the same time, cater to their culture. Today, it is more important than ever that firms learn and tap into their existing cultural capital within their organizations.

Technology firms are a perfect example. A recent study done by the Kauffan Foundation exposed an interesting trend in the tech industry. Immigrant entrepreneurs, who in recent years have launched half the startups in Silicon Valley, are founding drastically fewer companies. Except for one group - Indians. There are a growing number of Indians who are working in start-ups and are also finding profitable opportunities in venture capital funding. What makes entrepreneurs from India so different? One reason explained is that Indian entrepreneurs have a very strong support network here in the U.S.

About thirty years ago, when Indians began building momentum in Silicon Valley, that first generation of successful startup founders worked hard to help those who followed in their footsteps. They built organizations and created a U.S. ecosystem of successful Indian entrepreneurs - and, crucially, angel funders - to accelerate newcomers.

Understanding this background of the Indians and being able to categorize which group the they might fall into, according to Lewis' breakdown of the world's cultures, would help you understand how to better sell and serve these firms.

Years ago, when I first got started in the business, a very close older Italian friend of mine sat me down and said that in order to be successful in this business, you need to understand cultures and how they operate. He went on to take each culture and speak about how they buy, how they sell, and what motivates them. At first, I almost took the whole discussion as racism, but quickly realized then and now that it was one of the most important lessons that I learned.

People are different for many reasons, but a large part of who we are is where we come from. If we can know someone's cultural background and upbringing, embrace these differences instead of ignoring them or even dismissing them, then we as salespeople will be significantly rewarded.


Written by: Hans Hansson


Hans Hansson is President of Starboard TCN Worldwide Real Estate Services as well as a member of the Board of Directors for TCN Worldwide Real Estate. Hans has been an active broker for over 28 years in the San Francisco Bay Area and specializes in office leasing and investments. If you have any questions or comments please email or call him at (415) 765-6897. You may also check out his website,

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