Building rapport across cultures

Rapport concerns the relationships or connections we have with others and affects our level of satisfaction with them. When rapport is positive, our connections are fruitful and we feel the goals we have for the relationships are being fulfilled. However, rapport is not always easy to achieve, especially in culturally diverse contexts. I outline below three particularly helpful mindsets and strategies, drawing particularly on some research and analysis that Jiayi Wang and I carried out on a Chinese ministerial delegation’s visit to the USA[1].

Be adaptable and resourceful

Whenever we meet people, we hold expectations as to what will happen, who will say or do what, and so on. Often we are not consciously aware of these expectations, yet if they are not met in some way, it’s easy for us to become irritated, upset or anxious. This can negatively affect rapport if not handled with suitable adaptability. For instance, when the Chinese ministerial delegation visited the USA, they needed to adapt to a number of issues, including:

  • A short lunch break, preventing them from taking a nap
  • Iced water served at meals, giving them stomach-ache
  • Security arrangements that did not give them any preferential treatment, as they were used to in China

They considered talking with their hosts about such matters, but decided against it, lest they undermine the rapport they were gradually building with them. Instead, they either accepted the difference or found an alternative solution (e.g. to take a flask of hot water with them), thus helping to maintain rapport.

Reflect: In what situations have you needed to be adaptable and resourceful?

Seek common ground (technically known as cognitive-oriented strategies)

The more people have in common with each other, the easier it is to build rapport. This means that when mixing with people from diverse backgrounds, it is important to pro-actively seek out common ground. The American hosts of the Chinese delegation did this in various ways; for instance, one person included Chinese characters is his presentation and showed his familiarity with Chinese history. The Chinese delegates were very impressed and commented privately afterwards that it had enabled them to feel closer to their American hosts.

If people are to find points of common interest or experience, such as any shared hobbies or places they have each travelled to, this requires a willingness to disclose non-sensitive personal or professional information to others. Without this, it will be more difficult to build common ground and enhance rapport. Nevertheless, there can be cultural (as well as individual) differences in what is appropriate to share in what contexts and in what people feel comfortable talking about.

Reflect: What steps have you taken (or could you take) to build common ground with someone you’re unfamiliar with and who is from a culturally different background to you?

Promote a positive atmosphere (technically known as affective-oriented strategies)

Many researchers (although not all!) associate positive rapport with enjoyment or pleasure. Here there can also be quite a lot of cultural differences. For instance, for some people, gift-giving is an important strategy for building rapport, including in professional contexts. This was certainly the case for the Chinese delegation. They spent a lot of time every evening discussing how well their American hosts received the gifts they had given them that day and in planning what gifts to present to them the following day. Their comments made it very clear that they saw the ‘success’ of their gift-giving as influencing their degree of rapport with their hosts. For others, however, there are serious ethical issues associated with gift-giving and in fact many organisations limit the value permitted for any gifts given or received.

Another frequent way of fostering a positive atmosphere among people is to pay others a compliment. Again, however, there can be significant cultural differences in this. There can be differences, for instance, in the frequency and intensity with which people pay compliments, the acceptability of the topic or focus of the compliment (e.g. someone’s competence, achievement and/or appearance), and the manner in which it is ‘polite’ to respond.

Reflect: How often do you build rapport with someone from a culturally different background to you by paying them a compliment? Why/why not?

Finding out more …

To find out more about rapport and rapport management, take a look at our other GPC Insights on the topic, including Building Rapport – Key Elements; Core Concepts – What is rapport?; and several pieces in our section Latest Research Insights. GPC offers masterclasses and consultancy on rapport and rapport building, so if you’d like to find out more about these opportunities, do get in touch with us.

Professor Helen Spencer-Oatey


[1] Spencer-Oatey, H., & Wang, J. (2020). Establishing professional intercultural relations: Chinese perceptions of behavioural success in a Sino-American exchange visit. Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, 49(6), 499–519.