Traveling Trust, Reciprocating Trust

I was in Munich for a one-day stopover en route to Bucharest. I left New York a day earlier than planned to avoid some weather. And I realized yet again – travel has a way of doing that – what an extraordinary level of trust we all take for granted in our modern world.

Yes, the news is full of the opposite. Doctors have a hard time trusting pharmaceutical manufacturers. Patients have a hard time trusting their doctors, and doctors have a hard time trusting their patients. Some patients trust the internet more than their doctors, often with bad results. And trust in most institutions is down over time (the military being a notable exception).

A Trusted Trip

With all that going on, it’s easy to forget some basic things. I can freely cross national borders with some mere papers. I can trust the exchange rate when I buy Euros. I can trust the flight controllers that govern the airspace, the airline handling companies that do catering, the bus and taxi systems I encounter.

But most of all, I know I can rely deeply on the basic human decency of people I run into to help with any simple issues – even though we may not speak the same language, and we’ll never see each other again. I can trust that people will give me directions, help me with travel issues, take a moment to help sort out a problem. And I’m almost never, ever wrong in that basic level of trust.

Which motivates me, of course, to try and return the favor whenever I can. And you do the same, I know.

What’s Really Amazing

What’s really amazing is not how often trust goes wrong, but how often it goes right.  Our modern life is unbelievably complex, and yet runs remarkably well.

I don’t want to be Pollyana-ish about this. The fact that trust is so pervasive is precisely the reason we notice and feel trust violations so deeply. We are all right to be deeply offended by untrustworthy behavior; if we lose our capacity to be outraged, we have lost our ability to recover.

Lots of things can be said about lost trust, but I want to highlight one. Trust is reciprocal. My trusting you causes you to trust me, and vice versa. An absence of trust starts with one party. The presence of trust starts with one party. The question facing all of us is, will you be the one to start?  Or will you always insist on the other party going first?

Do you insist on your vendors insuring you against all losses?  Then don’t be surprised when they don’t trust you.  Do you have all your employees sign cutting-edge non-compete clauses?  Then perhaps you can understand why they might seek ways around it.  Do you give lie detector tests to your employees? Then you might gain insight into why you have a shrinkage problem.

You can do your part as an individual too. To be trusted, be trustworthy.  And if you think others are not trustworthy as you – try trusting them first.

For starters, that’ll make your travel a lot easier.

Trust at O’Hare Airport

I flew Friday night from DC to Kansas City, by way of O’Hare.  That’s redundant, everything is by way of O’Hare.

We left from Gate B8.  I got to my seat, put my MacBook Air in the seatpocket ahead of me, and settled in.  After a few minutes, the pilot announced the equipment had a problem, and would we all please deplane to board another aircraft at Gate B7.

We grumbled but got up to go.  As it happened, I was last out of the plane.  I talked with another passenger for 20 minutes until we boarded the new plane.  I reached into my briefcase to put my computer in the seatpocket and—heart-drop.  I had left it in the other plane at B8.

Why You Can’t Trust Strangers

I ran out the door, back to B8.  The gate agent said the cleaning crew had not been in the plane, and it was empty, but he couldn’t allow me in—he would go look for me.   He did, and after a bit too long, returned—empty-handed.

I ran back to the plane at 7B, whereupon the pilot—same pilot, same crew—came back with me and went in himself.  No computer.

We had to leave for KC .  I filed a baggage report when I got there.  I was cautiously optimistic.  I was 98% confident I had left it in the plane, and 100% sure the only other possibility was the gate area.  I gave it 50% odds I’d see it again.

By end of Saturday, I dropped the odds to 25%.  I emailed O’Hare baggage too.  By Sunday evening, I made plans to replace the computer.  Monday afternoon, 10 minutes before walking into the computer store, I got a phone call. 

It was from Francisco Q., of West Shakespeare Street, Chicago.  He asked for me by name, and told me he had found a computer.  He said he was an employee not of United, but of an O’Hare catering service. 

He hadn’t found it in the plane or the gate area.  It was in an O’Hare parking lot, in a plastic bag.  He said a friend bought a charger (the battery was depleted), and knew how to find my name from the Mac Address Book function. 

Francisco wanted to know how I wanted him to send it to me. I said “fast,” and he agreed to do so.  I was beside myself with relief, and offered him several hundred dollars as a reward.  He said little about that.  I planned to send a check by FedEx to him the next day.

The next day he called to ask, apologetically, if I could send the money before he sent the computer, as it was going to cost him a lot to ship, and he was out the cost of the power cord too.  He asked if he could pick up the money at Western Union–the same day.

Once Burned–Do You Give Up Trusting Strangers?

I can hear what you’re thinking.  But I could hear his voice, and I had no trouble believing him.   I sent him the reward, plus reimbursement for the power cord, and gave him my FedEx account number.  (Do you know how much poor people pay in fees to use Western Union?  No wonder they stay poor).

You can draw your own conclusions about United Airlines ground employees (myself, I still don’t know)–and about Francisco Q.  In fact, you probably already have. 

So tomorrow morning, when FedEx arrives, we’ll know whether or not I was right to trust Francisco.  If I was wrong, I’m not out of pocket just a computer, but a few hundred dollars as well, and will publicly feel stupid.

If I was right, I’ll have my computer a bit faster, and feel better about the human race.  And so will Francisco.  And I think you will too.

I’ll let you know. 

Meanwhile—place your bets in the comments section below.  I’m giving heavy odds on Francisco.

Test How American You Really Are!

As promised in my last posting, here’s a simple self-assessment tool to rate yourself on your general knowledge of the world outside the United States. The fewer you get right, the more American you are, baby!

All have links so you can score yourself immediately (and get educated too—like you care, baby!).

1. Is Sweden East or West of Norway? Answer

2. Can you name the head of State for either Italy or China? Answer

3. Traveling west from Madrid, what country do you first encounter? Answer

4. Which is the most populous world religion—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism? Answer

5. Where does the US’s biggest city (by population) rank globally? Answer

6. Have you ever heard of Shenzhen? Answer

7. In what country does Juventus compete? (bonus—in what sport?) Answer

8. Is Bangalore in the south or north of India? Answer

9. What language do they speak in Brazil? Answer

10. On what side of Australia (N, E, S, W) is Sydney? Answer

11. Is Ireland part of the United Kingdom? Answer


12. What currency is used in Belgium? Answer

13. Is Japan north or south of Vietnam? Answer

14. In which century was the country of Italy formed as a political entity? Answer

15. In which country is the United Nations headquartered? Answer


16. Which languages are spoken in Switzerland? Answer

17. Where is Catalunia? Answer

18. Where is Bosnia in relation to Poland? Answer

19. In what sport do the All-Blacks compete? Answer

20. What country lies between Iraq and Afghanistan? Answer part one and answer part two

21. Hugo Chavez—union leader, president, or owner of World Cup soccer champions? Answer

22. How many time zones are in Russia? Answer

23. Singapore is a former colony of what country? Answer

24. If you’re in The Hague, what country are you in? Answer

25. What language is spoken in Austria? Answer


OK, score time.

If you got:

20 or more: You are almost certainly a foreigner—absolutely not an American. You probably don’t know the difference between a Hoosier and a hot dog. You couldn’t tell motherhood from apple pie. You’re quite possibly a communist. We don’t like your kind around here. If you don’t like it here, go back to China and speak Japanese like the rest of them. Nuke gay whales for Jesus!

14 to 19: You may technically be an American, but clearly a lib-dem; 3 to 1 says you’re from New York, possibly San Francisco. You probably went to a private school, and you’re probably in favor of letting immigrants stomp all over our right to bear arms.

6 – 13: Wow, where’d you learn all that stuff? I mean, that’s a lot of work. Who’s got that kind of time? Don’t you think you should be spending your time more productively? It’s all well and good to travel internationally—hey I think Cancun rocks, and I even drove into Tijuana once—but you could be going to an MLB game instead, and supporting the US economy by buying American, like that Sharp TV I bought last month.

0 – 5: Congratulations, awright, you’re an American! Travel? Love it. Can you believe their accent in Buffalo? Great steaks in Dallas fer sure. I always liked the AFC teams best. We’re going overseas next summer, maybe Toronto. Or even New Mexico—do they take dollars there? Either that or a cruise to the Bahamas. Go Yew Ess Aye, Number One!

Americans, Travel and Rushing to Judgment

I travel internationally; less than some, more than many. These last three weeks I’ve been in three countries (the third visit for one, 10th and 20-something-th for the others).

Travel is good for everyone, I think, but especially for Americans. All right, OK—for me.

(On Monday I’ll have a tongue-in-cheek self-diagnostic test: find out just how American you really are!).

I know a few who love foreign travel. They assume that people are fundamentally the same, and delight in finding the superficial differences, the spices that make the human stew an infinitely varied source of nourishment.

I admire the hell out of them. Because unlike them, my first reptilian-brain instinct is to go to fear-based judgment. An all-too American response, I think. All right, OK—maybe it’s just me.

Here’s what I’m re-discovering on this trip:

• Judgment feeds on fear.
• Fear feasts on ignorance.
• Ignorance fades when one can hear others—in their terms.
• Our ability to influence depends on our willingness to be influenced.
• Our similarities far outweigh our differences.
• Our behavior in groups mirrors our behavior as individuals.

My personal road to growth has been exposure to others. For me as an American, the benefit of international travel is enormous. Yet only something like 20% of us have a passport. Absurdly few of us speak another language—usually poorly at that.

But what’s the link between individuals and groups? Does the road to corporate trustworthiness go through the individual?

Some see trust issues mainly as group issues. I’m more inclined to see groups as aggregations of individuals. Let’s assume and explore—at the risk of touching on politics—the latter.

Marriage-researcher John Gottman says marriages work best when we are vulnerable to and influenceable by our mates. They’re worst when we judge, shut down, and insist on changing the other.

Might nations be the same? Mark Twain says, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."

If Gottman’s observation extends to group behavior, then exposure to the world influences us. And, thereby, gives us influence.

Consider foreign student exchange programs, and how deeply they promote understanding. We could afford to spend $10,000 per head to send 500,000 Americans abroad to be influenced, and the same amount to bring 500,000 influenceable foreigners here—all for the cost of about two months’ spending on the Iraq war. With, arguably, better results. In any case, we could use a bit more of that perspective.

One of our presidential candidates said, “the security of the American people is inextricably linked to the security of all people.” It is no accident that this candidate “has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian.” (Hint: it’s not Giuliani). We could use a bit of that kind of perspective too.

Peter Jennings—famously traveled—said, “Whenever I see a coin, I’ve learned to turn it over to see the other side.” We need a bit more of that view, I think.

My suggestions for travel in a new country or city:

  1. First, go walking. A lot. For hours. With no goal but to experience.
  2. Invest a few hours in the national historical museum.
  3. Find a local restaurant without using the concierge or guidebook.
  4. Be curious, not judgmental.

We need a bit of that too. Well, I do anyway.