The Godfather Chronicler: Gay Talese on Trust

Readers of this blog know that we often write about Intimacy in a business context. And two of the three elements which make up that invaluable quality are empathy and discretion: creating a cocoon of safety in which another person can talk to us.

I have never heard a more poetic description of this than the one from Gay Talese in “A Writer’s Life”:

“I learned [from my mother] … to listen with patience and care, and never to interrupt even when people were having great difficulty in explaining themselves, for during such halting and imprecise moments … people are very revealing—what they hesitate to talk about can tell much about them…

I have also overheard many people discussing candidly with my mother what they had earlier avoided—a reaction that I think had less to do with her inquiring nature or sensitively posed questions than with their gradual acceptance of her as a trustworthy individual in whom they could confide.”

Lovely words: “…to listen with patience and care.” If we can do even this simple yet powerful thing in all of our business conversations, we’ve accomplished something nearly miraculous.

We’ve shown respect and empathy.

We’ve allowed another person to reveal something troublesome or difficult or embarrassing, and gently received their secrets.

And we’ve taken steps to becoming, like Talese’s mother, “a trustworthy individual in whom they could confide.”

Listening is indeed a gift, not a tactic, and let us give this gift with patience and care.

Top Trust Myths: 1 of 2: Trust Takes Time

Trust takes a long time to build, and only a few moments to be destroyed.

That has to be one of the great trust platitudes. In fact, it literally is: there’s a website that ranks the most popular trust quotes, and essentially that quote is number 3 (numbers one and two are inexplicably complex).

Many truisms are in fact true; that’s how they came to be truisms. But some are not; and this is an example.

Trust Takes a Long Time to Build? Not necessarily, in fact frequently not. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Trust Takes Only a Few Moments to Be Destroyed? Even less true. That’s what I’ll talk about next.

Trust Takes Time: Not.

“At once my mind was made up. I knew I could trust this young man implicitly,” goes a tale of petty larceny from the web. Researchers tell us that the propensity to trust can be increased or decreased simply by chemicals; increased by Oxytocin, decreased by testosterone. Neither takes long to administer.

How about trustworthiness? Think about the symbolism that goes on when you enter your physician’s office: the white coat, the stethoscope, the faint odor of something (I always assume ether, which probably went out with Sherlock Holmes), the degree on the wall. How long does that take? Not long.

“I trusted him instantly,” says Emma-Jane Corser of her husband, whom she met online. She’s not alone. This is profoundly common human behavior; we all make split-second decisions based on a variety of factors, few of which boil down to the kind of analytically-based routine we like to think of ourselves as following.

Peter Tingling and Michael Brydon write incisively in Sloan Management Review about “evidence-based decision-making” and “decision-based evidence making.” Jeffrey Gitomer says, “People buy with their hearts, and rationalize it with their brains.” Trust is hardly the only kind of decision we make quickly.

What Kind of Trust Takes Time?

Of course, platitudes don’t achieve that status out of thin air. There’s usually something to them, and of course there’s something here too. In the Trust Equation, one of the factors is reliability (the others are credibility, intimacy, and an other-orientation). Reliability is the only factor that requires the passage of time to be evaluated.

Think of all the ways we link trustworthiness to time. She walks the talk. He does what he says he’ll do. She’s never let me down. He’s always been there for me. If she says she’ll do it, you can take it to the bank. And so forth.

Finally, there’s what the social scientists and trust academics call “generalized” trust—the propensity to believe well of the motives of strangers, and to be generally optimistic about the future. That one, it turns out, takes ages to turn around—negatively or positively. As Dr. Eric Uslaner points out, generalized trust is pretty much installed with mother’s milk.

So: does trust take time or not? Clearly, this is one of those cases where the right answer is, “it depends.” And what it depends on is the type of trust we’re talking about.

Does it take a long time to be seen as trustworthy? Let’s break it down:

Type of Trust Takes Time?


Credibility Not much

Reliability Yes, by definition

Intimacy Not necessarily; usually pretty clear pretty quickly

Other-focus Not necessarily; usually pretty clear pretty quickly

Propensity to trust

In institutions Shifts over a few years

In specific people Not much time

Generalized trust A long time—typically from birth

Next Post, Trust Myth #2: Trust is lost very quickly.