A Distinctly Human Feature
Trustfulness allows commerce and conversation to proceed
In 2005, the novelist David Foster Wallace delivered a commencement address at Kenyon College, a small Ohio school with tall admission standards. The speech subsequently was published in book form and has come to be for freshly minted college graduates much as Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go is for high school grads.
Wallace opened his remarks with a story about two small fish that encounter an older fish as it swims toward them. “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” the senior fish asks. Some moments later, one small fish asks the other, “What the hell is water?” The fish, you see, are so immersed in something intrinsic to their existence that they have no awareness of it as a separate reality.
I read Wallace’s speech the other day after seeing a reference to it in an article by The New Yorker’s Idrees Kahloon about trust as an essential and often overlooked element in commerce and economics (“Believe You Me,” July 26). In modern economies, “… everything is predicated on its existence,” Kahloon writes. “(Economist) Adam Smith concluded that trust was a fundamental feature of humanity.”
Smith wrote, as Kahloon notes, “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”
Kahloon finds that the modern sharing economy heavily relies on trust and cites as an example people who rent homes or condos listed on Airbnb or Vrbo. I am newly returned from a family vacation spent at a home in the mountains of western North Carolina. We found the spot on Vrbo. About its owners, I know nothing. Based on an area code, we think they may live in Atlanta. About me, the owners, upon furnishing me with the combination to a key lockbox, knew only that I was good for a deposit.
The transaction was enveloped in trust, something I did not think about. It was as water to fish.
Trust survives, even thrives, unseen and sufficient to allow commerce to proceed. Meanwhile, however, we have seen trust in institutions, including government and the press, drop off precipitously. According to the pollster Gallup, 75% of Americans said in 1964 that they trusted the federal government. What do you think that figure is today? Nope, lower.
According to Gallup, only 40 percent of U.S. adults today have a “great deal” (9%) or a “fair amount” (31%) of trust and confidence in the media to “fully, accurately and fairly report the news.” In the 1970s, trust ranged between 68% and 72%.
What’s going on?
Trust declines when genuine engagement falls off. Politicians don’t engage with voters as they once did. Too many do not pledge fealty to ideals, ideas, the Constitution or constituents but to bombastic pretenders. The media, to a great extent, deliver all the news that’s fit to print — so long as it aligns with corporate philosophies, goals, advertisers and targeted niche audiences. Interaction between reporters and sources tends to be superficial and guarded.
Under today’s circumstances — and, mind you, I started writing and reporting in the halcyon days of 72% trust — I make sure to take a conversational approach to interviews and begin by making it clear to sources that I have taken time to research them, their passions and what they do. From there, I proceed without a prepared set of questions, preferring instead to let the conversation take its own course, like water released from an impoundment.
Recently, I interviewed the poet, FSU professor and amputee Jillian Weise, one of whose legs is computerized and surveys the surfaces she traverses, preventing her from falling. Amazing. We found ourselves talking about efforts to destigmatize or soften the word “disabled” by employing alternatives. I had referred to “people living with disabilities.”
“If I may,” said Jillian, “I don’t like ‘with’ language. I have no problem referring to myself as a disabled poet or a disabled professor.”
“Sure, I see what you are saying,” I said. “As someone in his 60s, I would not refer to myself as a ‘writer with years.’ ”
“Yes!” Jillian laughed. “I am so glad we are collaborating.”
And, silently, I recognized that collaboration results from trust.
In a story for today’s magazine, Matt Thompson, the managing partner of For the Table hospitality in Tallahassee, commented to writer Riley O’Bryant about how personal food is to people, how restaurants have but one chance to do it right.
Interviews in which a person is asked to share of himself and trust that a writer will “accurately and fairly” report the conversation are even more personal.
Thank you, Dr. Weise, for using that word, “collaborate.” Perfect. Two heads are better than one.
Believe you me,