Why Don’t We Trust Each Other?

When there is a doubt about your intentions, people will revert to the worse assumption.

I surprised myself a little the first time I said that because I hadn’t thought of it before. So I stopped talking and looked out at my fluorescent-lit, corporate classroom, dotted with civilians in suits and camouflaged warriors, and I saw only nodding heads.

I teach a course on writing for senior government audiences. Some years ago my employer asked me to add a segment on how to use email and this accidental observation—that, given a doubt, most of us will make the uncharitable assumption—became the key moment in my segment on email.

It was not a scientific observation. I had simply sent and received a staggering volume of email over the past few years and the pattern I had sensed suddenly popped into my consciousness. People using email to undo misunderstandings from previous emails had become one of the major stressors in my office.

So, in my writing course, I now advise people against writing too much. I tell them, whenever possible, to establish face-to-face, person-to-person trust—to meet the person on the other end of those messages. Watch her smile as her cream reaches around her coffee with octopus arms then melts. Chuckle to yourself when she withholds comment on your ridiculous juice cleanse drink. Then chat about your life, your job, and what she loves in life. It switches her default, for your emails at least, and it will switch your default for hers.

Short of that, we simply must learn to choose the other option: When there is real doubt, assume the better motive. You will sometimes be wrong. But you will be wrong less, I think, and you will be gracious. You will do to the other person what you would have him do to you. All it takes is offering trust to people who have not strictly earned it.

Trust is a squirrely thing. It is inherently unsafe. As a culture, we have come to hold safety as one of our highest values and I suspect that this accounts, in part, for the dismal level of trust (and fear) in our public dialogue.

Because it takes a certain amount of trust to listen generously to another person. And it takes trust to tell your own experience to someone who is then free to use your words however he will. That is why a culture that places safety above all other values cannot trust; it can neither listen generously nor engage in dialogue.

Trust is a risk. And, to complicate the issue, some risks are wise; others are truly foolish; and it is terribly difficult to distinguish one from the other. If you assume the best of people and expect the best of them, you will do well five times and then someone will burn you on the sixth. But the sixth does not make you a fool for the other five. It may, in fact, be wise to trust a thief with the household silver. And it may be wise to take 12 men and teach them the ways of God. But it is costly. The thief will take the silver and one of the 12 will get you crucified. And it is totally worth it. If you call yourself a Christian, it is, anyway.

Many of us start our lives with a childish trust and, later if not sooner, someone violates this trust—sometimes cruelly—and then we live a story called Adulthood 101 and the story carries a lesson: Trust Leads to Injury; Do Not Trust. This lesson creates some safety but it also creates a vast loneliness. It poisons our relations with our fellow man and, if the injury is our identity, we become professional invalids, a people whose primary project is to live out our injuries.

I believe the lesson of Adulthood 101 has reached deep into our public psyche: Trust is not safe. It leads to injury. Do not trust. We speak from fear and we have a long memory for betrayals—both real and perceived. But, as a mature culture, our story cannot end there. We cannot return to a childish trust and we cannot afford to forever live out the lesson of Adulthood 101. We must learn a kind of trust that is tempered by the hard lessons of life—a kind of trust that, if it is not safe, is at least wise and mature. But that is the topic of another article.

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