Trust Us? Are You Really My Friend?

trust 300x224 - Trust Us? Are You Really My Friend?It may be the most overused, least appreciated, most haphazardly defined word in modern life. Yet, it makes online commerce possible, discussion groups debatable and eBay profitable.

Simultaneously, its abuse leads to urgent letters from Nigerian depositories, fuels goofball conspiracy theories, enables a menagerie of computer viruses, and funnels millions of hapless targets into the clutches of phishers and frauds.

“IT” is trust. We no longer know what it means. As we stumbled into a fully digital, fully connected age, we forgot to forge better ways to measure and describe how much we trust someone, and how much others should trust that person, too. Trust is the grease of our online and offline lives, yet we still haven’t figured out how to measure and dole it out. What is the value exchange and correct way to manage and communicate our intent?

Numerous ventures keep trying to create virtual approximations of the person-to-person trust we used to build through years of face-to-face interactions. But we still lack the updated and finely tuned vocabulary, taxonomy, and scoring system to make these worthy efforts successful. What we eventually come up with will be at the core of our social-media-enabled, always-on, everywhere-at-once lives.  In the meantime, we have some work to do.

Meeting Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohammad Yunus forever changed how I view concepts of trust. Yunus built the pioneering Grameen Bank by doing the opposite of the conventional: he loaned tiny amounts of money, to very poor people, virtually all of them women. Instead of attorneys, he wrapped a social support system around each micro borrower, building a dense web of trust and relationship to ensure loan repayments and borrower success. Now the Wall Street Journal reports that microfinance may outstrip India’s formal banking sector in the next few years. Will Citibank  and Bank of America follow suit?

This approach echoes how we once operated here in the West. We largely dealt with, and trusted, two main “buckets” of people: those we knew personally, and those with whom we had done some sort of transaction, “business” or otherwise. We bought from companies in our backyard. We worked with, drank with, married and joined bowling leagues with people we knew, or that people we knew had known, and had known for a while.

That’s not the case anymore. For many people in many kinds of situations, the transformation has been wonderfully, stupendously liberating. Now we can find like minds half a planet away that share our specific tiny niche of an interest and want to share that passion with us, even if only through a discussion board or email or YouTube video. In my own life there are people I have met or “know” and there are people who I have transacted with.  I am constantly editing my relationships with these two parties, creating an ever greater distance between the two.

“Only time buys trust” nicely encapsulates this approach. But if there’s anything our lives lack, it is time. We don’t have time to buy real trust with so many who routinely touch our lives. And we don’t yet have the tools to quickly learn from others how much to trust our newest “friends.”

For many people, the new world has been wonderfully, stupendously liberating. The buckets of people with whom we have meaningful interactions have expanded logarithmically, while the descriptive language to properly identify those connections languishes in a small Midwestern town in 1927.

Now people whom we “know” and trust tell us the best deal on headphones, hash through complex policy issues, or sell us a rare Pez dispenser. Social media sites let us claim thousands of “friends” or millions of “followers,” though many attained that once-lofty status through a couple of clicks of an email form letter.

And we still have that old-school subset of acquaintances, schoolmates, business colleagues, relatives and true friends who will give us a ride to the airport at 6 AM. At, possibly, a higher level of trust, there are those we’ve had sex with, dated, remain married to, or would bail us out of jail.

So how do you describe who you trust, and for what?

Eskimos are reputed to have 7 words for snow (or 50, or 100; see the entertaining Wikipedia debunking entry). Similarly, those in more temperate climes talk about brooks, streams and rivers, bays and gulfs, oceans, seas and lakes.  It’s all the same watery stuff, but each term suggests something different.

Well, we need similar nuance in our taxonomy of trust. We have no subtle and accepted vocabulary to define where in the hierarchy someone falls, as defined by personal history, the quality and type of previous interactions, and the type and context of the current interaction. But boy do we need it.

In the 1980 film “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a Kalahari Desert native encounters modern technology in the unlikely form of an empty Coca-Cola bottle.

His fellow tribesmen find many uses for the bottle, and many reasons to fight over it. Eventually, he seeks to throw the bottle back over the edge of the world, to protect his people from civilization’s discontenting technologies.

It’s way too late to put the genie of technology back in its bottle as it pours into every corner of our life. But it’s not too late to think about how we can better manage the craziness that this particular Coke bottle has ushered into our sometimes too-trusting lives.

Trust Us? Are You Really My Friend?

In creating this piece, my intent is to drive towards the solution. I urge each of you to distill and communicate your thoughts on the why and the ways to create new the taxonomy of trust as we usher in this new era of transparency and social volatility. My study of Arnold Patent, who quips “there are no accidents,” drives my universal truths and belief system. Life is changing as we know it and I want to be part of the change.

You’re up to bat.

Click here to leave a comment on this article

Tony Greenberg

I speed through life building relationships, businesses and finding extraordinary people and contemplating the curious decisions they make. The premise of this space is to expose the bridges and chasms of trust, truth and bias that I encounter daily.

22 thoughts on “Trust Us? Are You Really My Friend?

  • October 26, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    This is an insightful and important article. Issues around trust, integrity, and authenticity can be baffling, even within my circle of close friends, not to mention the high volume of business transactions and social media interactions all of us deal with on a daily basis.

    Thanks, Tony!

  • October 27, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    These are very important questions. I’ve been thinking about the time element of trust, as well as another very important and often overlooked consideration in building trust: place. Trust inheres in places where people gather. Trust is borrowed by people entering places, based on their previous participation in that place or their familiarity with persons in the place they are entering from other places.

    Social results—whether we call it “trust,” which is a product of social interaction, or “a culture,” the ongoing event that is social in character—are not something that can be installed in a place or within a relationship arbitrarily. Social results are features of a bounded space-with-a-history that evolve. I’ve appropriated the term “splace” from philosopher Alain Badiou to account for the time-boundedness of social settings.

    A splace is never finished, because time continues to flow. Trust can be eroded or built up by people’s actions within a splace. Talking about trust, then, requires we examine the commitment of people to one another’s well-being—your transitive verb-based account of “trust”—as well as how trust, the noun-characterized belief in the reliability and responsibility within different places and over time.

    For example, we may trust people in one place where we share information based on professional relationships. Two lawyers meeting at a Bar Association meeting will borrow from the splace, the Bar Association, the institution, and the place the Bar Association meets, the confidence to accept and begin to exchange information with one another based on their mutual confidence in their profession and the expectations of confidentiality and probity it possesses (without getting into why lawyers should be trusted by other lawyers, let us simply assume these two believe they can strike up a professional relationship).

    Those same two lawyers may not feel compelled or obligated to extend that professional relationship beyond the setting—the splace—where it began, particularly if, when meeting in another place, they find their professional relationship could be compromised by the implications of the next splace they meet. Let’s say it is a meeting of the Communist Party of California for the sake of argument. There, they may actually be compelled not to acknowledge one another as familiar and trusted. The histories they participate in cannot meet without creating a professional problem or, perhaps, leading the other Communists to think they are FBI moles.

    They share the knowledge and choose to hide the intersection of their bounded-places-with-histories. Their lawyerly relationship is matter to their Communist relationship’s anti-matter. The two cannot meet without disrupting both spalces’ trust relationships.

    As much as I appreciate the Greek philosophers’ love of taxonomy, we need to recognize that developing a taxonomy of trust requires thinking, as Einstein did, in many dimensions simultaneously. Trust is distributed unevenly and conditionally, making it possible for extraordinary combinations to emerge at the confluences of some splaces, which can lead to transformative moments for people who, being at the right place and time, combine their influence to lead the world in a new direction. Simply assuming that all trust is the same in all places, as we believed the universe was prior to Einstein, can also lead to disastrous losses of trust because of the disorienting collision of confidences, disclosures and ethics/mores at the wrong place and time.

    Finally, we cannot make the mistake of believing that, once established, trust is permanent and unchanging. Splaces wjere trust relationships thrive are never finished. They die when trust ceases to be a work in progress, becoming instead arbitrary rules and procedures that diminish the participants’ trust in the place and the people they find there.

  • October 29, 2009 at 6:04 am

    In this complex world where stimuli pelts us constantly as we fly through this asteroid belt trust still boils down to the simple concept of word. Our Universe has been condensed on the head of a pin which enables use to embrace people unlike never before. Who to mingle with now, who to trust, indeed that is the question with this new opportunity before us. Intuition and common sense must be nurtured to help guide our decisions. Trust rests on the word, the promise kept. Break the word, and the trust is broken. I'm sure you'r looking for deeper ideas than this, broader visions and I know you'll land them but, hey, I wanted to get a post going here, my friend, so I had to start something.
    Brian Deagon

  • October 29, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Great blog, Tony. I think the concept that you are really talking about, rather than 'time', is 'experience.' Time without interaction doesn't strengthen relationships. It is about building a track record: seeing whether others stick to their commitments, or at least clearly try to, and visa versa, that establishes trust. ….at least with me.

  • October 29, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    I read with enjoyment Tony Greenberg’s piece entitled “Trust Us? Are You Really My Friend?” I met Tony several years ago, maybe or maybe not (neither of us is certain), but I had the pleasure of his company Saturday night at a progressive dinner party he attended with me and several others at my home and that of two people I call friends with no equivocation.

    He discussed his article and asked if I would add my thoughts after reading it, so here I go.

    Tony’s thesis seems to be either of two things: first, whether people we call our “friends” should be thought of in such an intimate terms, and second, whether our vocabulary needs more words to describe the levels of persons with whom we deal in an increasingly complex world. He uses taxonomy as the general theme of this venture, not unlike the terms we studied and forgot in high school to describe animal life, and in this instance, insects: Kingdoms, Phyla, Classes, Orders, Families, Genera (Genus) And Species. (I’m not an expert in this; I just looked it up on the web).

    In the insect world, there are 1,017,018 different species (again, from the web), so a complex taxonomy is essential in order to identify each one for whatever reason scientists need to do (I suppose to allow them to name a previously undiscovered flea after their mother, and thereby gain whatever respect they lost when they announced they were going to study bugs and not go to medical school like their cousin). Insect taxonomy comes in handy; a “Stegophylla Querci”
    is always a Woolly Oak Aphid, wherever it shows up.

    Tony posits a few million less species of acquaintances. I was able to identify seven or eight in his piece, so we probably won’t need seven layers of classification to create his taxonomy. It wouldn’t be difficult to imagine terminology for each category, such as Tony’s “VF’s” for virtual friends and “VF-squareds” for friends of virtual friends. We already have “Business Associates”, and ebay uses “Buyers” and “Sellers” (even “Power Sellers”).

    I have 539 “friends” on Facebook, but honestly couldn’t pick out more than 20% in a lineup. As I write this I am trying to imagine how many of them might in fact be criminals and might one day be mugging me when they check my wallet and realize they are Facebook friends with me. Maybe they’ll leave me in piece, redeeming my decision to accept them in the first place.

    The disconnect I feel in Tony’s article is that, in my mind, it isn’t about taxonomy at all. I don’t define my relationship with anyone by of how I entitle them. It’s not as in the world of Entomology, where a common name is essential to enable scientists distant in time and space intelligently to discuss the same species. My relationship to my friend Paul in Phoenix is entirely unique, and no one else needs to identify him within my taxonomy to relate to him.

    The issue to me is about an increasingly complex world, in which, as Tony relates, we might share an interesting blog with someone in a distant land or bid against a stranger half our age for that unique Pez dispenser. Does the ability to connect with so many diverse people confuse us about their relationship to us? I don’t plan on asking the guy I bought that Pez dispenser from to get a beer one night, so I don’t feel I have allowed the complexity to challenge my relationship perceptions. Clearly, however, such confusion takes place every day, as evidenced by teens who arrange liaisons with strangers they meet under false pretenses online.

    Although I don’t think that merely attaching a particular nomenclature defines a relationship, perhaps a more robust taxonomy can help us better understand the substance of our relationship with others. I confess that we live in a world in which shorthand can be important…in which labels can help give greater meaning to those with which we interact.

    But ultimately, labels don’t solve the problem because unless we understand the true nature of a relationship, we can readily attach the wrong label to it. How many times have we heard of the guy who falls for the girl and imagines she reciprocates, when at best, she views her suitor as a friend. Having a more refined taxonomy only helps if there is true objectivity, as with insects. Once we move into a world of subjectivity, the concept of an accurate taxonomy becomes nearly impossible to apply. To various people I am dad, husband, brother, son, partner, old boyfriend, professor, student, and on and on.

    Unlike the Coke bottle in Tony’s piece, none of us is ever just one thing. What’s needed is a more profound understanding of nuance and of the complexities of our society. IF creating a taxonomy helps begin that process, then I’m all in favor of it…and perhaps I can even name one after my mom…Socialus Lorrainis: a person who joins Facebook in their late 80’s.

  • October 30, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Thanks for the thought provoking article, Tony.
    One interesting aspect of this phenomenon, for sure, is how much we rely on strangers.
    My online buying decisions are almost completely driven by people I don't know. There's something very powerful about group rankings of products, or retailers. It just feels authentic. I trust them, even though I have no idea who "they" are.

    I don't trust everyone I meet through social networks. As my Facebook circle grows bigger, I feel more removed from it. I think that's because you get to a stage where you're being friended by people who are once or twice removed from your actual circle of friends. In that world, I would argue that less is probably more.

    I look forward to hearing more from you.


  • October 30, 2009 at 6:02 pm

    This is just like you Tony… to remind and embody the notion that over time, a trust, a knowing'ness develops between people that goes well beyond the more simple and plastic quick encounters of our digital age. We meet who we are supposed to (and are ready) to meet. Those deeper connections as you know are where real life takes place. I love that you have decided to create a place (must I use the word Blog damnit!) where you will have a deeper conversation. Anyone that knows you – knows thats where you really live. You Go Girl ! 😉

    So- good luck with this endeavor, I hope to read more from you…
    lastly- I have done the math.. I believe somehow, you owe me a drink…

    be well, bob

  • October 30, 2009 at 10:27 pm

    Tony, I enjoyed your article and commend you on defining and sending your ideas and message into the world for all of us to see, ponder and share.

    This article, to me, brought up a few distinct thoughts in my ever-evolving definition of trust. To me ‘actions’ define how much or how little I will trust and engage with a ‘friend’ or ‘acquaintance’ in my two distinct sectors of personal life and business life. I liken my ‘trust of a friend’ to the analogy of a Baseball Player in the MBL where all the batting statistics of a player are tallied up over a year/season.

    It goes something like this: a Single represents (an unexpected gesture), a Home Run (a friend coming though when I needed him/her the most), an RBI (doing something selfless for a friend), Caught Stealing a Base/Strikeout (saying/doing something uncomplimentary behind one’s back) and so on and so on… For me, a Friend’s ‘actions’ all take great meaning over a season or year so to speak.

    And I’m sure this is common place for most, but with every birthday or New Years, I will reevaluate how much this ‘friend’ means to me, based on their ‘stats’ and how much my instincts trust and want to engage this person to be in my life/on my team for the next year. By that standard, I will give/communicate back and reciprocate gestures of gratitude and appreciation (Apologies, I know you hate ‘G’ and ‘A’ word).

    I’m not sure this is the best way to go about this, but my undivided, ultimate trust in someone forces every atom in my body to surrender and be vulnerable to my ‘friend’s’ personal constructive criticism(s) or ‘best interest in the business relationship at hand’, so I need to make sure I am giving my trust to the ‘right’ people who care for my personal/business well being as I do for theirs.

    Like most, I also liken my ‘real friends’ to my small, ‘intimate circle’ that is then surrounded by bigger and bigger circles. In the outer circles are my work associates, old friends, high school and college friends from present and past… People who are in the inner circle are there because of our ongoing mutual concern and personal/business partner communication with each other. So I guess that leads me to my other point of how, in my personal and business world, ‘COMMUNICATION ALSO BUYS TRUST’. Time can be empty or filled… but communication can fill that time with mutual understanding, empathy and knowledge.

  • October 31, 2009 at 1:28 am

    Subject matter is and has been relevant for some time now. it’s relevancy has grown exponentially over the past 3 years. Your position is mostly questions presented to the reader…all good questions. It made me ask myself “how do I get to the point that I trust someone or something”. It is a provocative article written well in that, I as a reader, am interrupting my reading of the words to think. Thanks Tony.

  • October 30, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Tony! I am so pleasantly surprised at your writing abilities. I’ve only received 2-word mistyped declarations from you in past. I now expect full sentences.

    Phil, you are correct. Experience buys trust better than mere time, but that URL was bound to be taken 🙂

  • October 31, 2009 at 7:40 am

    It is a great article and I love some of the comments but the essence of TRUST TO ME IS BUILT ON TIME. When I first met Tony, with what seems a lifetime ago, I knew A) Incredibly Intelligent B)Extremely Connected C) Charismatic Leader, but would I jump off a bridge for him, absolutely not. But over time my trust in him has grown to a point where I would do anything for him. I have always respected and admired him but TIME SPENT WITH HIM VALIDATED MY TRUST IN HIM.

  • October 31, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I urge people to read "The Four Agreements" by Don Miguel Ruiz. One of the agreements is "Be impeccable with your word." Easier said than done for many. I'm amazed at how few people acually are. Personally, I am trusting of those who are impeccable with their word & urge those who aren't to be so.

  • November 22, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    Let me explore the nature of trust.

    Consider the following – which of the following resonates stronger?
    •I think I can trust George
    •I know I can trust George

    Knowing in this context is predominantly based on a gut FEELING. When we KNOW we can trust someone, it is an effortless experience and is of the same quality that we know how to breathe or grow our hair.

    Trust is therefore an experience of feeling that is universally understood and is shared through the human experience, even before we invented literacy as a form of expression.

    The exploration of trust comes down to the simple questions – Whom do you trust? How do you know?

    The knowing of trust that is feeling based and is a range of experience that is multi-dimensional. The use of language is a limiting form in such a case. The reason is that language is designed to LABEL and name things in a limited medium that is linear at its core.

    In some cases you trust someone of something because you have heard of them, their reputation, or they have been referred by someone who’s judgment you trust.

    Now consider the experience of trusting. When you surround yourself with people you trust, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy of a trusted environment where Energy is spent with fulfilling relationships. An environment of flow, freedom and mutual support.

    In contrast MISTRUST is a form of blocking Energy. A constriction of flow that has the potential to lead to stressful endless questioning and thinking, whether anyone can be trusted – a blockage in the Flow.

    Building the taxonomy of trust, therefore, is an exploration of facets that comprise this range of knowing.

    Why is this exploration important?

    Here is an example of the potential: The explosion of self-publishing of the web, has the potential to create a true meritocracy of ideas, of opinions, a more self reflecting open society that has no geographical bounds. If everyone was equally trusted…

    Run a simple test: type in the search bar: “debt relief”. Look at the results, and ask yourself if you KNOW whom you can trust?

    Now imagine the web through the lens of trust. The experience could be a culturally transforming experience. We have the opportunity, in this generation, to create that experience – a flow of Energy and information that is based on trust, and therefore unlock the potential of a mutually supportive society that is flowing in creativity.

    I KNOW that creating the experience of a trusted Web is not only possible it is within our grasp.

  • November 27, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Great topic… I would differentiate between:

    1) The kind of social trust that lets me express myself freely: A belief that you have my best interests (or at least are neutral to my interests), which generally is correlated to some sort of proximity/familiarity/inner circle of concern. How does this happen?

    2) The kind of trust that lets me make a deal with you: Trust that you will do what you say you will do (show up for a dinner, pay your bill, do your share of the work). The recognition of a pattern of kept or unkept promises helps me decide to contract with you again.

    A more meta aspect of trust is the often false belief that based on past experience I can predict an outcome (a la Taleb's the Black Swan)- The belief that the other person, or circumstances surrounding the situation will essentially stay the same, remain unchanged. This is in my experience a false belief- those who have broken my trust were often those who up until that moment were perfectly honorable-and vice versa- that those I was a little shaky about based on a prior experience and took a chance on came through with full force of creativity and commitment.

    And even more core, is one's cosmology: What do you believe about the universe? Do you come down on the side that no matter what happens, its all essentially play and embodiment and trust the process to be good/revealing, and you stay open— or is the universe a darkly unpredictable place where you have to walk in defense and shielding?

    Thanks for your thought provoking writing, and thanks to Taylor for the link. I would like to see you write your words for snow and create a hierarchy around this! It would be totally interesting to have a dinner where everyone got butcher block paper and big markers and did a mind map of their circles of trust, and the dimensions on which they divided people into groups/ the aspects they are already consciously or subconsciously are using to delineate trust buckets, and then discuss- how do people really think?

    Thanks for the prompt to actually think about this.

  • November 27, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Love your point about energy blocked v flowing. I've been choosing this lens of trust consciously, on and offline, and my experience of the world is changing dramatically- in choosing transparency, being fully human across all dimensions, believing that all experiences are additive – that good is flowing– this has translated into peace of mind, ease in love and community, prospering work, new opportunities and great creativity…I had invested so much energy into defending– thanks for this perspective.

  • December 6, 2009 at 12:36 am

    You are a wise man and a fairly good writer!

  • January 11, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    I'm overwhelmed by your sharp wit. I could write a long paragraph with quotes and fancy words… But instead, I choose to shut up and just say "I trust you."

  • January 14, 2010 at 1:39 am

    I find myself in reading posts on FB with an eye towards authenticity and depth of character.

    Fascinating to try to read between the lines as so many emotions are left online without thinking about the ramifications.

    posting on FB IS akin to building a brand without question. It also is a way to create a degree of privacy by being accountable for your words.

    For me it all comes down to intent.
    If you are angry it shows
    If you are truly interested it shows
    If you are being glib,superficial, politically correct etc etc.

    I think, as you say, there will be an evolution of writing styles-that which promotes your personal brand and that which you truly hold close to your heart.

    When text becomes a less common form of interaction (ie John chambers video blogs instead of email, or skype vidio chats) body language will change the context of communication.

    Extremely interesting subject to me. Keep writing! I'll be back.


  • April 19, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    I’m overwhelmed by your sharp wit. I could write a long paragraph with quotes and fancy words… But instead, I choose to shut up and just say “I trust you.”

  • April 23, 2010 at 7:18 am

    Love your point about energy blocked v flowing. I’ve been choosing this lens of trust consciously, on and offline, and my experience of the world is changing dramatically- in choosing transparency, being fully human across all dimensions, believing that all experiences are additive – that good is flowing– this has translated into peace of mind, ease in love and community, prospering work, new opportunities and great creativity…I had invested so much energy into defending– thanks for this perspective.

  • December 7, 2011 at 7:07 am

    Expanding on Christine’s ^ comment concerning one’s cosmology, ‘core’ to me in a dialogue examining trust and what I believe would most likely be center point in mind-mappings is: ‘self/universal-trust’.

    Self trust is often overlooked yet one of the most powerful virtues we have. It is ground-zero. I envisage self trust to be like an internal navi-system embedded in a universal system and wired by common sense, gut feeling/intuition and consciousness. When we trust ourselves (and the universe) we can stay in our own personal power taking responsibility for our actions and interactions. Fear doesn’t reign, there is a flow making leaps of trust and building it’s foundation more likely.

    p.s. enjoyed the sharply written read and thought-poking Tony, onward ho!

  • May 27, 2020 at 6:22 pm

    Proud to be your pal. They threw away the mold when they made Greenberg!!

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