The Vocabulary of Trust on Twitter

iStock Texting in meetingTrying to define the word “trust” is a bit like defining obscenity. As former Chief Justice Potter Stewart said about the latter, you can’t define it, but you know it when you see it.

My favorite example of this is, “I trust my dog with my life—but not with my ham sandwich.” It’s a joke we all get; but it does wreak havoc with a straightforward definition of the word.

To put it another way, the meaning of the word is contextual.  A dictionary is not a book of symbolic logic; it is an anthropological document. It tracks how real people in the real world use real words.  And the more contextual the word’s meaning, the more we have to rely on straightforward anthropology.

One of the real worlds of today is Twitter land. For about two months now, I have been tracking the use of the word "trust" as it is used in various conversations on twitter. It is interesting to see how the language used by real people and unconscious conversation tracks very neatly with the usages of "trust" identified previously in articles and blog posts on this website.

The Several Meanings of "Trust"

I have suggested elsewhere that we sometimes talk about trusting, and other times we talk about being trusted, or trustworthy. There are other times when we talk about trust per se, meaning the state that exists on both trusting and being trusted are present. Following are some examples of each (typos left in for authenticity).

Examples of trust meaning "trusting"

  • what i learn from @utterperfect : Never trust anyone a 100%. You’ll never know what the people around you are capable off.
  • Posted my favorite butternut squash ravioli recipe. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.
  • Better of with just friends with benefits. Bc I don’t trust no1 anymore!
  • @Antoniogreen Yeah I trust in God & I’m not scared to die, I’m just scared to die in pain you know.
  • damn. people suck. no wonder its hard for me to trust people. Now i can’t tell if there telling the truth or not.
  • i have trust issues
  • Preview: Luke 17:3-4; When I have forgiven I will trust ..
  • Have Rules But Trust People you can’t have a rule for every situation.

Examples of trust meaning “trustworthiness”

  • RT @amlibraries: Top 100 health websites you can trust
  • @craigbutcher @paulums never trust french hosting
  • @NICELOOKNINA girl never trust annnyone who’s nice to everyone.
  • @sydsouthworth The externals work great for storage just don’t trust it only. Use other media as well like DVDs
  • Some trust in silver and some in gold some in chariots and horses but ill put my trust in the LORD for in HIM is safety and security.
  • @Mister_Magister Did I or did I not make you tofu you actually liked? Always trust a foodie 😀
  • Never trust anybody who says ‘trust me.’ Except just this once, of course. – from Steel Beach
  • @BillyTheBrime Trust me, I’m an expert ma’am.
  • And it backs up my view that you should never trust the moral right;)
  • Ok, we’ve had booby-trapped shoes and undies. Which piece of clothing will imperil lives next? I don’t trust cufflinks.
  • "Man made alcohol, God mad marijuana, who do you trust?"

Examples of trust meaning “a state of trust”

  • Talk it out. Come to a compromise. Don’t just keep someone around and then cheat on them. You risk your reputation as a person. No trust.
  • RT @DIJONES82: In my world trust is more important than love.
  • Another thing lacking in the Black American relationship is communication which breeds trust
  • Sugar Mtns 7 brand tenets: Trust, Clarity, Experimental, Intelligent, Remarkable, Consistently Good, Full Flavored.
  • It takes years to earn trust, and just moments to break it.
  • Is trust as important as commitment in marriage? After all, marriage is a covenant, right?

What Meaning do Trust Measures Assume?

When you think about trust patterns or read statistics about trust, ask yourself: what meaning is being measured?

• Is it the trustworthiness of someone or some institution? (Typical question: how much do you trust banks to do the right thing?)
• Is it the ability of someone to trust? (Typical question: do you think people are generally trustworthy?)
• Is it the state of trust in general? (Typical question: Is this a high-trust environment around here?)

Are you measuring changes over time (longitudinal)? Or are you thinking of contrasting levels (used car dealers vs. lawyers vs. nurses)?

Patterns of Trust on Twitter

I have not yet systematically analyzed the data, but I can make a couple of generalizations.

  • The word "trust" gets used very frequently; at 11PM (US EST) on a weeknight, about 100 tweets every 7 minutes employ the English word “trust.”
  • On Twitter, as compared to business, the meaning “trusting” is probably more common, and the meaning “trustworthiness” is probably less common.
  • The most common usage is probably the imperative “trust me,” closely followed by the imperative “don’t trust ___.”
  • There is an emerging meaning: the word by itself, as in “it’ll all work out: trust,” or “keep the faith, baby: trust.” It has a combined sense of “trust me” and “don’t worry.”


10 replies
  1. barbara garabedian
    barbara garabedian says:

    Charlie, interesting observations.

    Perhaps it is the preponderance of the use of the word "trust", the multiple contextual examples and meanings, the nuances w/ our language that have brought the term, "Trust " down to what appears to be the lowest common denominator. It seems (at least on twitter) to have become a casual tag line.

    So while reading your comments I asked myself…is it the overuse that numbs us to the reality & implications of the word and it’s meaning, or is overuse a necessity to emphasize and re-inforce the lack of it out there?

  2. Trusting McTrusterton
    Trusting McTrusterton says:

    I think you’re getting close to the meaning of trust while still dancing around it, because you leave out the whole other side.  Trust is not an indication of ethical behavior.  Trust is reliance on previous observation of any behavior, ethical or not.  You can trust an unethical person to behave unethically.  Therefore trust can be broken any time a person behaves in a manner contrary to the way you’ve come to expect that person to behave.  

    In fact, you probably do trust your dog with your ham sandwich.  You trust him to eat it when your back it turned.  The lack of trust results from your awareness that not eating the sandwich is behavior contrary to the dog’s nature.  Therefore, the lack of trustworthiness does not originate with the dog (or the used car dealer, or financial institutions), but with it’s owner’s unrealistic expectations.  

    All people are trustworthy.  It’s more a matter of how you can trust them, rather than if you can trust them.

  3. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I have another take.

    Essential Trust, the soul quality that carries with us when we’re born is an inner, cellular, psychic "knowing" that our well-being will be taken care of. When one operates in a way that counters our knowing (trusting), we develop mis-trust. My sense is that most children (if asked) do not develop a "trust" that father won’t be home on time, that they won’t be fed when hungry or diapered when wet, (when, in fact, all these may be consistent behaviors), even though that might now be their expectation. The experience of not having our well-being attended to, leads to a mistrust, IMHO, not a "trust" that something won’t happen, or a trust that someone will counter our well-being. And this notion of mis-trust carries over into adolescence and adulthood.

    I think the evolution/humanization of the word is a factor here but trusting one to do the "wrong" thing is not an apt definition. For me, a (patterned) violation of trust is not another flavor of trust.

  4. Trusty McTrusterton
    Trusty McTrusterton says:

    Now you’ve violated my trust in New Age Gurus (TM) by leaving the (TM) off ‘Essential Trust’.

    You say that most children don’t develop trust that father won’t be home on time, that they won’t be fed when hungry or diapered when wet, when in fact all these may be true, even though that might be their expectation?  I know several adults raised by the foster care system who will tell you otherwise.  That’s exactly how they grow out of childhood, by learning to trust their observations of the people and the world around them and the fact that their well being is no one’s concern but their own.  Is it the goal of developing trust to remain deluded children?

  5. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    You suggested, " You can trust an unethical person to behave unethically." Me, being too literal, I guess, I wouldn’t frame it that way, however, when I speak of that other person, that "I trust the car salesman to (unethical behavior) or "I trust my dog to eat my sandwich…". Expectation, supposition, belief, but, not "trust." Maybe that’s where I’m off….or not.

    Trusting an observation and creating a belief based on that observation is one way we learn how to navigate our way in the world, for right or wrong. And, yes, my well well-being is no one’s concern but mine. Hadn’t thought otherwise.

  6. Trusty McTrusterton
    Trusty McTrusterton says:

    What moves expectation, supposition, and belief to trust (ethical or unethical) is the basis in observable, objective, shared reality rather than subjective opinion, judgmental, individual (ego-centered) reality.

    And if you hadn’t thought that your well-being is anyone’s concern but your own, what is that ‘Essential Trust’ ("knowing" that our well-being will be taken care of) based on?  Doesn’t that "knowing" require an assumption that someone or something is concerned with your well-being?  Unless you’re saying that ‘Essential Trust’ is basically trust in yourself?

  7. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    I have NO idea if this helps, but, here’s my perspective:

    In the first three months of life, the child is merged with the mother. The child does not "know" itself but through the mother. There is no dual-unity for the child, i.e., mother and child, but a single unity wherein the child feels it is one with its mother. I am her. What she feels I feel; what she is, I am. Whatever the mother is experiencing, positive or negative (feelings, emotions, physical comfort/discomfort, etc.), the infant takes on to feel and be as well. The child knows its world in the presence of the mother (not by itself). The child cannot differentiate his emotional  needs and states separate from the mother. The child and mother are one in the same. In this state the child’s most basic need is for love to be unconditionally received. The prenate has an "innate knowing" that he is purely loved for himself.

    Around month four, if the child experiences that his love is denied (the energy of, for example, when the mother says or thinks or feels "I wish I never had gotten pregnant," "This pregnancy is really rough and awful…"; the mother is experiencing fear, depression, anxiety, etc), and so cannot love the child for the Essence the child is, the child may feel his Being/Essence is being  denied. The "badness" or negative experiences being experienced by the mother, the child also experiences inwardly, cellularly, and here is where the roots of wounding occur. The child takes on the mother’s "badness" as its own in order to still maintain an idealized loving mother.

    In this state of wounding, when the relational field between the mother and infant becomes strained, basic trust (I’ll use this instead of essential trust, but it’s the same concept, for me), begins to erode. As the child grows and experiences neglect, indifference, or denial (examples I suggested in an earlier comment), the child not only loses connection with it’s Essential self but with the mother. Here lies the seeds of mistrust.

    Fast forward: as adults, we are able to connect with our True and Real Self (which manifests Essential soul qualities like love, compassion, basic trust, will, strength, courage, etc) by engaging in spiritual practices like meditation, presence, personal/spiritual process work and the like) and interact with others from a place of basic trust –  in our self, in others, in our environment. However, many folks have split off from their True and Real Self by nature of a negative holding environment in the womb in their early years of life and have connected  with their ego-self, the personality self that walks the planet and makes choices, decisions, creates beliefs and assumptions etc. This ego self becomes their identity.

    It is this ego-self, that has come to view the world as not trustworthy, not safe, not loving by nature of its "less-than-good" holding environment when in the womb and for months after birth, having associated with feelings,  beliefs, assumptions, premises, expectations, etc. about one’s self (self-image, self-concept-who I am and who I take my self to be…) and the world. One’s orientation to trust-and mis-trust is based on this subjective, judgmental, mental ego-personality, not coming from a place of one’s true Self.

    As for objective reality, yes, there is objective reality. My credit card says I owe $50. Objective reality.

    However, in my experience, what many folks refer to as objective reality are events, circumstances, people and places about which they are making a judgment, not an "objective observation." This is tricky, for me. There’a always more to be seen, more depth, more "truth") to most  "objective reality" situations –  but we do he best we can with what we have, with who we are.

    My perspective is that when experience our Essential Self, the place of deeper consciousness and allow our soul to support us to differentiate, discern and discriminate, then "objectivity" is more possible. For many folks, this does not happen.

    Basic Trust, for me, is about trusting my self to be trusting. So, it’s about me, first, then, the world outside. 

  8. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Trusty, responding to your first comment where you suggest I am dancing around trust and leaving out "the other side."  Not sure which side you mean, since you are speaking of trusting, vs. trustworthy, which is a distinction I did in fact make.

    Regarding dependability, or reliability, I completely agree with you.  Reliability, in fact, is one of the four factors of trustworthiness which I include in the Trust Equation; see more in this article on Trust in Business: the Basics.  (The other three factors which make someone appear trustworthy to others are credibility, intimacy, and low self-orientation).

    You are perfectly right that we trust people insofar as they fulfill our expectations, including the dog example.  However,  that is just one aspect of how we trust people.  In fact, paradoxically, we can sometimes quickly come to trust another precisely when they do not fulfill our expectations, if those expectations were negative, and their responses exceed our expectations on the positive side, for example when someone responds gently toward us in response to a criticism from us.

    Trust, as I have found over and over, really is contextual.   There is not a single definition of trust that fits all situations. 

    To David Heath, re the "trust but verify" quote, that was actually not made famous by Shrub, but by Ronald Reagan.   As suggested in the Wikipedia entry, it was also a favorite of a founder of the Soviet Secret Police; Reagan used it so much that it annoyed Gorbachev.

    My own view on that quote is that it’s misleading: I would say that if you think you have to verify, then you’re doing precisely the opposite of trusting.  The fact that it was a favorite of an actor and a police chief is no accident; both have interests in gaining advantage over others through the manipulation of words to keep their original appearance, while suggesting different meanings.

  9. David Heath
    David Heath says:

    I should have checked the origin, somewhat faulty memory.  C’est la vie.

    I agree entirely with your assessment, perhaps my tongue wasn’t pushing out the side of my cheek firmly enough!


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