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“A reputation for trustworthiness”

December 20th, 2004 · 4 Comments

Piles of wrapping materials – from tissue paper to newspaper to popcorn and “peanuts” – displayed on sale in stores, and then stuffed into trash cans on December 26th, reveal our intense efforts during the holiday season to protect and preserve what is fragile.

Yet during these past few weeks and this past one in particular, I’ve been thinking of an intangible item that is easily broken: trust.

My mother taught me about trust when I was a little girl. I can remember her tone of voice and her intense look at me when she would talk about this subject: this is important. Mom told me that once trust was broken, it would take time to restore it. My mother emphasized to me that a little thing can break a big trust.

Dave Winer wrote two mini-essays on trust related to two companies. It was his use of the five-letter word that made the issue obvious to me, although I had been reading it in blogs and experiencing a lack of it in my life. Later in the week Dave highlighted other posts starting with this one describing a crisis of trust and communication.

While I am not familiar with the companies and situations Dave described or linked, I have had two relationships with local companies that have soured through recent situations. In November, our home’s heating systems were serviced by someone who also stained our carpet at the same time, leaving soot and a (red!) sealant on the off-white. He said he would return to clean it in the next week, but he did not return until three weeks later, after we called a few times to complain. Apparently, he had to return on his own time to clean our carpet, not on company time, and he was also working two shifts a day and weekends, due to another employee’s illness. So I tried not to be too upset with him. We realized that it was the company who was to blame, the company who was also not trustworthy. When we complained to the company, they did not respond. And if they treated their employees this way, they were also indirectly treating their customers poorly too. Our trust was broken. Although we have had a relationship with this heating company for years, we will not be calling them next year.

Last Monday, while Ted was in New York for a family funeral, I was driving the van when the steering column suddenly loosened. I could tilt the wheel in every direction, and it rattled when I took a corner. Since it is still under warranty, I had to have the van towed to the dealer’s repair center, about 45 minutes from our home. When they inspected our van, they discovered the fault was theirs: recall repair work done on the steering column during our last visit had not been completed properly. So now I will wonder whether they will continue to do a poor job when working on my van. How can I trust them? In addition, I had to call the dealer to check on the status and ensure the work was done, after I didn’t receive a call from them. I was surprised that no official apology was made, no offer of free oil changes or coupons or any other effort was extended to smooth ruffled feelings. I certainly was perturbed to be without our van for two days, especially with Ted gone, due to their errors.

The issue of trust seems ubiquitious. Also this week, Doc Searls tried to straighten the record and explain in his blog what it was that he told the Newsweek reporter, compared to what appeared in the recent article about blogging and making money (nice picture of Doc poolside!). Here I saw both the issue of trust in journalism (what the reporter wrote or didn’t, what Doc Searls said or didn’t) and in the blogosphere (how others reacted to the piece and Doc’s posts). The idea of making money in blogs also complicates the issue of trust. There is the issue of earning money itself and also the issue of disclosing how money is being earned. Both are required to build trust in blogs, I believe. How does it affect a blogger’s trustworthiness to be receiving money for posting on various topics or including certain links? I am not making money from this blog in anyway at this time…but what might readers do if I was earning income by blogging my diaper recommendations or book reviews – would that affect our relationship? Would you still trust me?

Money aside, blogging itself is a dance of trust. Readers wonder whether they can trust the writer. And writers wonder how far they can trust their readers. At least I do at times: I wonder how much of myself I could or should put on this web page. Will I regret what I write when others read it, either today or ten years from now? Will I be attacked or condemned? What will happen to my information? Perhaps there are others in my life who may not trust me because I blog. No one has explicitly stated this to me, but Jeffrey Rosen’s article in today’s New York Times Magazine Your Blog or Mine? [link found via Susan Mernit] described these various dynamics of trust and blogging from various perspectives. I look forward to discussing these issues further during my session at the Northern Voice conference in February.

Trust is rare. Watching tv or reading a newspaper also reveals how we don’t trust one another, whether it is the latest results in the Washington state governor’s race hand recount, or a prime-time sitcom of crises.

We don’t trust the neighbor sitting next to us on our daily commute. We no longer trust people on public transportation. Here on Bainbridge Island ferry commuters live daily with this post-9/11 problem. Last Tuesday, a young man threw away a backpack on the Bainbridge ferry and ran off of the boat. Due to security concerns, the ferry and the island dock itself were shut down. After hours of investigation including an x-ray of the garbage can, police determined it was a safe situation (paper, Thermos and calculator, no explosives). But in the meantime, the next Bainbridge-bound ferry was re-routed to Kingston, where I had to go pick up Ted on his way home from New York. The ferry is a lovely way to travel, but neither Ted nor I were excited about taking the scenic route on Tuesday night (especially since our van was in the shop!). Public Service Announcement: no matter the amount of emotion or end-of-semester exhaustion, please do not dispose of backpacks on the ferry boat. No one is trusted; no one’s behavior is above suspicion.

Trust is a fragile item, when it is found, in culture or in families. I grew up, in the aftermath of my parents divorce, wondering whom I could trust. I felt deficient in relationships and I knew I wanted to learn. During my first year of college, I prayed for a man I could learn to love and trust. At the same time, although I didn’t make the connection then, my friendship with Ted began. Little did I know that we would start dating soon after those springtime prayers, and that I would spend years of my life loving and trusting him. At one point I remember sharing with a friend my prayers and my relationship with Ted. “Ted seems very trustworthy, ” she said. My impression from her and others through the years has been that many people believe they can trust Ted; it is one of his strongest qualities. One could use many adjectives to describe an ideal spouse. Money or looks might make the top of some lists. Trust would be one of my first desired qualities. I’m glad I married a trustworthy man.

But have I been a trustworthy woman? I try to be trustworthy. It’s important for me to do what I say I will do. I made many promises to Ted and I’ve tried to live them. But I haven’t been perfect. I make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes. At times I didn’t trust Ted. Those times were years ago, and I’ve changed and grown through the years. But I know I need to constantly watch myself and see whether I am trustworthy.

Last week my kids told me that I don’t always do what I say I will do. Ouch. They said it to me one afternoon as I was rushing up and down the stairs, going back and forth between domestic duties, putting laundry in its place, preparing dinner etc. What they said was true. Sometimes I do tell them I will do something but then I get distracted or respond with delay, especially in the afternoons when I am trying to order the household. Sometimes I’m already occupied with another task or another sibling, and forget their requests.

Their words served as warning to me. I want to be trustworthy. I don’t want it to be something I am trying to do but someone I am, not an outfit I put on for show, but integrated into my being. I don’t think I’ve done anything huge to destroy my children’s trust in me, yet the size of what I’ve done, that I perceive, doesn’t matter. To little kids, everything is big. And it is in the little things that trust is built, the daily routines, the words spoken in the car or in the kitchen, the things I do even when no one sees me.

In his New York Times Magazine piece today, Jeffrey Rosen wrote:

Without a reputation for trustworthiness, neither friendship nor journalism can be sustained over time.

Everything depends on trust. It’s one of the best gifts you can give someone. No wrapping paper required.

Tags: journal

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Orcmid's Lair // Dec 20, 2004 at 1:52 pm

    The Heart of Trust

    Julie Leung addresses the sticky icky problems of a human being’s reliability and trustworthiness: “Everything depends on trust. It’s one of the best gifts you can give someone.” Trust is a gift that we make to someone. You can’t demand someone’s tr…

  • 2 Chas Redmond // Dec 20, 2004 at 6:58 pm

    That NYTimes piece is an amazing read. I’d avoided checking into either Wonkettte or Washingtonienne mostly because both are all gossip and high on the sleaze factor. Did check out the cache of Washingtonienne and all it did was prove my suspicions – true slime. But, hey, it’s a free-speech world and all that. I’m on the side of being circumspect with respect to the privacy of individuals I may mention on my sites. I believe that’s the proper approach. First, second and last is the issue of the privacy of someone else. Unless they agree in advance to any and all disclosure one is really taking a risk in revealing pretty much anything about another person. The law is on the other person’s side, common decency is on the other person’s side, respect is on the other person’s side. In short, violating these tenets – breaking the trust – is just that. It’s a violation of the other individual’s rights, privacy, and perhaps even persona.

    Yes, blogs are great and the information which is shared by bloggers is valuable and insightfull (in many respects). But, just as I wouldn’t want to hear in person the private or sordid details of some other person’s life, the same should be true for blogging. The sadness about all this is that there are so many individuals who have no clue as to what the word “decency” or “propriety” or “privacy” or “circumspect” mean nor the intent of these words on their behavior.

    So, we have a new world – the blogosphere -which is filled with the same mix of individuals as who fill the real world. We have the clueful and the clueless. The clueless will lose friends, alienate their family, perhaps lose their jobs. They will still remain clueless in most instances – sad, but probably true.

    The rest of us can only subscribe to the ethics we have and to practice those ethics in any arena where we have a presence.

    You are absolutely correct in that trust is the key. Once it’s lost it’s really hard to regain. In 30 years working for the Feds the only thing I really had in my job and with my colleagues and those others I interacted with was my integrity. I never lost it and it was the one thing about me which remained constant. It did cost me a few raises and some political pressure (my job was supervised by a political appointee – changed with each administation) but in the end I could look myself in the mirror and be pleased with the person who looked back at me. My colleagues, others I interacted with, all could “trust” me.

    That should be the bottom line of a blogger – can we read our blogs the next day and have respect for the person who penned the words or posted the images. Do we have ethics and follow them? Are we trustworthy? If the answer is “yes” then we can continue to blog. If the answer is “no” we have other, deeper, problems.

    BTW, on another front, the whole ferry boat, 9-11, thing, I continue to have this blind trust in strangers – call it my Pollyanna view of the world. But, I cannot allow myself to be cast into a suspicious mode by others. Humans have been trusting each other and strangers for far longer than any other social element about us as a species. If we begin to shrink from contact with strangers, if we begin to fear unknown persons, we lose all we have gained in over half-a-million years as a social creature. It’s something too fundamental about humans to lose and it’s something I refuse to allow to be lost. Yes, I’ve been burned on occasion; yes, sometimes my trust is misplaced. But, every so often it’s the stranger who offers the answer or the important, new, view or perspective. That stranger is too valuable to hide from or fear. Hence, I remain open and vulnerable. My trust in others is predicated on my being open to them in the first place. If I’m not open then I become an “untrusting” person and then they will see me as being “suspicious.” It’s a delicate balance but it’s definitely a two-way street. Being fearful begets fear. Being open begets trust.

  • 3 Julie // Dec 23, 2004 at 12:59 am

    Thanks, Chas. I appreciate your experience. I agree that being open begets trust. However, security regulations in effect on the ferries now require suspicion of everyone. We can trust each other as individuals and I hope we do. But at the same time we live with the post 9/11 realities and changes to our lives.

    Here are other links to this post:



  • 4 Lisa Chau // Dec 23, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    Nice post. I particularly related to the lines:

    “I want to be trustworthy. I don’t want it to be something I am trying to do but someone I am, not an outfit I put on for show, but integrated into my being.”

    I read the same NYT article: http://dartblogs.com/lisachau/archives/002283.html

    I found your blog via: http://www.justagwailo.com/

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