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?