Close Close

Financial Planning > College Planning

Culture Clash

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.

At a recent Million Dollar Round Table conference, I was warned beforehand that my talk was being translated into Cantonese, Thai, and Spanish, and some jokes might not go over so well with people from these cultures. Knowing this, I made a special effort to be sure that the multinational group could enjoy what I had to say.

This experience reopened my eyes to the importance of understanding the ethnic orientation and cultural norms of clients. The more you know about the values that underlie their attitudes, the more successful you may be in building relationships–as these examples suggest.

My new client is a software engineer who recently emigrated from Russia. Because he lost all his earlier savings due to his country’s economic turmoil, the only investment he trusts is U.S. Treasuries. Is there some way I can help him get past this limitation? It’s often hard for Americans, with our faith in our essentially self-righting economic system, to appreciate the emotional scarring of clients who have survived the panic and frustration of explosive inflation, stagflation, depression, or other severe economic malfunctions.

Proceed cautiously; take plenty of time to help your client air his fears and feelings about his previous experience. Along the way, you can educate him about other investment options, and about the differences between the Russian economy and our own.

In working with clients burdened by such emotional baggage, it’s vital to take anxieties into account in your educational efforts. If you push him into the market before he’s ready, he may bolt. You could lose a client who might have come around, had you taken time to be more sensitive to his financial trauma.

A young entrepreneur of Pakistani heritage has asked me to help him. The only son of immigrants who run a small restaurant, he has a hard time dealing with his parents’ expectation that he will take care of them in their old age. He thinks they should set aside funds to protect their own financial security, but feels powerless to discuss this with them. How should I handle this? Unfortunately, there is no easy solution. In certain cultures, children have been conditioned for centuries to accept responsibility for the care of elderly parents. If your client acts on his Americanized belief that his parents should try not to be a burden on him, he may be haunted for the rest of his life with being a selfish, “bad” son, at least in their eyes.

Compromise may be possible, but you need to begin by empathizing with the vast gulf between the viewpoints of both sides. I would suggest interviewing your client to find out more about his parents’ values and the extent of their openness to our own cultural beliefs. This will tell you whether meeting with them is likely to be productive.

In exploring this possibility, be sure to tread carefully. In the meantime, you might encourage your client to buy long-term care insurance for his parents, so that a health crisis in their later years won’t cost him his own financial security.

Even folks whose great-greats came over on the Mayflower can struggle with this issue, and solutions are almost never easy. But if you help this young man air his fears about losing his independence, and see what financial plans you can devise to address his anxiety, you will contribute significantly to his peace of mind.

My client, a teacher whose modest inheritance I manage, has asked me to help resolve a conflict with the Vietnamese immigrant she recently married. A moderately successful seafood wholesaler, he sends $1,500 a month to relatives in his homeland. This upsets his wife, since it leaves them unable to build up their own savings. Is there any way I can do some good for this couple? This calls for a great deal of diplomacy. If you are willing to help build a bridge between these two partners, I would first invite them to discuss the cultural beliefs and values influencing this conflict. Then, try to summarize their differences in a way that clarifies the issues and opens the door to negotiation.

You might say something like this: “In Vietnam, you [the husband] grew up believing in the duty of a successful family member to support his relatives. But to you [the wife], brought up in America where personal responsibility is more prized, it seems a higher priority to protect your own financial welfare and that of your children. Is there a compromise that would help you both achieve the well-being you seek?”

Eventually, the husband may feel less obligated to send away so much wealth, and be more willing to meet some of his wife’s concerns. But unless he is willing to compromise, it would not be wise to push him too quickly to stray from his own cultural norms.

A gentleman and his wife from a Middle Eastern country consulted me. He seemed to have no trouble dealing with a female planner, but I was taken aback by his blueprint for his children’s future. His two sons are to attend an Ivy League college; he will settle large sums on his two daughters at marriage. He’s discouraged the girls from considering college, and won’t pay if they go. His wife said virtually nothing during the interview. I was biting my tongue to keep from protesting his sexist assumptions. If I work with him, can I possibly make a difference? Whoa! First, back up a few steps. Do you honestly feel able to set aside your own beliefs in order to work compassionately with this couple?

If your client’s lack of interest in educating his daughters makes you want to clobber him, I’d back away even further. Refer him to someone less emotionally involved, or at least capable of more patience and tolerance in trying to change his attitude. Perhaps a planner from a similar cultural background would find it easier to understand and accept the conditioning that informs your client’s point of view.

If you feel able to continue, you might ask the wife how she feels about educating her daughters. Her passivity during the initial interview suggests that she may be unwilling to disagree with her husband, or that she may even agree. But if she does voice a wish for the girls to have an opportunity to attend college, you may be able to gently nudge them toward a more egalitarian view.

The deck will be stacked against you, though, if your client thinks you are trying to force him to change his views. People are more likely to change when they feel totally accepted for who they are, not when they feel judged or condemned.

A middle-aged couple met with me after their oldest son’s bar mitzvah. They intend to send their three children to college and graduate school, but when I looked at their portfolio, I had to tell them this goal may be out of reach. When I mentioned student loan programs, they said emphatically that they won’t consider letting their kids start out under a financial burden. What now? First, you need to understand that many (if not most) Jewish families consider it of prime importance to provide for their children’s education. Failing this makes them feel they have failed as parents. You need to honor the depth and power of this cultural belief.

Let them know that you understand and respect their position. Then, ask if you may help them explore ways to achieve their goal despite their limited resources.

Over time, you may be able to help this couple accept that they can be very good parents without having to pay all the costs of their kids’ education. By telling success stories about other families’ experiences, you may even be able to help them see that it could be beneficial for their children to share this financial responsibility.

I think I’ve just blown it with a prospective client, a sales professional. First he was reluctant to open up to me about his money (maybe because I’m white and he’s African-American). When I asked if he had established a college fund for his two children, he told me in no uncertain terms that they will have to pay their own way. I then asked about his level of experience with stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, and he said that real estate was the only investment he wanted in his portfolio. I ended up feeling I’d put my foot in my mouth big-time. What could I have done better? You are probably too hard on yourself. But it could be helpful to reflect on the experiences that lead many African-Americans to distrust the market system, and to prefer tangible investments to those that are more abstract.

With any strongly biased client, the best approach is to respect his investment preference, discuss pros and cons with him, and present options at his disposal. Let these clients voice concerns and fears, and see for themselves that you are working to meet their needs while respecting their values.

In this case, I suggest you answer the client’s questions honestly. Be patient with his skepticism until you earn his trust. If his attitude stymies you to such an extent that you can’t empathize with him, you may want to ask if he would be more comfortable working with an African-American planner. However, don’t rush to suggest this unless you are sure you can’t work it out. Otherwise, it may appear that you’re rejecting him as a client, which could well increase his sense of distrust.

When working with clients from diverse ethnic backgrounds, try to understand the weight of traditions and values they bring to your office. Remember, each culture has different norms in matters of wealth, children, the elderly, spouses, education, and so on. Try to accept these differences with respect. This can be slow and painstaking work.

None of this will be possible, of course, if you are convinced that your views are right and theirs are wrong. If that is your conviction, be flexible enough to refer your clients to an advisor who is more sympathetic. But if you are honest with yourself and work toward patience and compassion, you will know when to try to expand your clients’ horizons, and when to simply help them find financial options within their own framework of beliefs.