Is trust just a taxi ride away?

Taxis in Hong Kong

“Henry, the investor, wasn’t keen on accepting a stockbroker’s invitation to share a taxi – a sales pitch for a whole mile, he thought. He was wrong. The stockbroker neither mentioned his firm nor any stock. He merely unknotted his tie and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. “It’s not my favourite,” he said, “but my son chose it for my birthday, so, I have to wear it.” He continued: “My boy’s ten. That’s about the age when sons suddenly realise their fathers are not superhuman after all. Mine thinks I’m a loser.” One mile later, Henry had decided that he quite liked this stockbroker.” – The Trust Mandate: The behavioural science behind how asset managers REALLY win and keep clients. Brodie & Harnack, 2018)

The power of first impressions

This true story illustrates that it was possible for one person’s perception of another to swing from thinly disguised suspicion to mild appreciation in the space of a few short minutes. The authors offered some explanations for Henry’s abrupt change of heart:

  • Henry had set a very low the bar for the broker, who wasn’t a sales-orientated bore after all.
  • The taxi was in Hong Kong, so Henry might have been comforted by the thought that both he and the broker, as foreigners, were members of the local outgroup.
  • Both passengers were British nationals, so Henry might have imagined some connectedness or sense of shared values.
  • Henry might have appreciated the broker’s self-deprecation, his informality, or his family orientation.

Yet, the authors conceded, none of these things alone would have resulted in Henry liking, possibly even trusting, the broker. What mattered more than anything else in this exchange was his fellow passenger’s willingness to be vulnerable.

The broker’s revelation about his birthday gift was hardly a damning indictment, but he certainly wouldn’t have wanted his son to know that he hated his new tie, and that he stuffed it out of sight at the first opportunity. Nor would he have wanted everyone to know his own son thought he was a loser. These were snippets of personal information that he had entrusted Henry with in confidence. Henry certainly felt a burden of responsibility to protect the privacy and honour of his new confidant. Trusting behaviour, in this case, had evoked trustworthiness. Without being conscious of it, a trusting relationship had been initiated. If Henry had a risky decision to make – one that would also have made him vulnerable (to losses) he might even have sought the broker’s advice. Trust begets trust.

It’s good to share

There is evidence that early self-disclosures like these are associated with trust, and with behaviours beneficial to trust-building, such as a liking, and closeness. On the opposite end of the scale, self-concealment, which is the tendency to hide personal information from others, is associated with interpersonal conflict, lack of commitment and dissatisfaction with the relationship. Yet, many people, even though they seek trusting relationships, and appreciate self-disclosures in others, are reluctant to disclose information about themselves.

“We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we are afraid to let them see it in us. [. . .] I want to experience your vulnerability, but I don’t want to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me. I’m drawn to your vulnerability but repelled by mine.” – Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead (Brown, 2012).

Why is your vulnerability so good, but mine so bad?

Irrespective of the source of our feelings of vulnerability, e.g. asking for help, apologising for an error, confessing love, admitting fear, or sharing an unpopular opinion, we tend to judge it more favourably in others than we do in ourselves. In others, we perceive the personal disclosure as evidence of courage, strength, and self-assuredness. In contrast, we see our self-disclosures as evidence of weakness, incompetence and powerlessness.

That awful fear that others will perceive us negatively if we reveal personal information is usually overdone. Yet, it often prevents us from sharing – even though doing so would contribute enormously to trust-building. So, we should try be a more open to people with whom we would like to build trust, and we should do it early in the relationship.

Trade-off between trust and candour in firts impressions

How much should we disclose? Well, we are still talking about first impressions here, which means we should limit personal disclosures to our thoughts and observations, not our feelings, needs or desires. Also, these disclosures, if they were to become known, should cause us no more than mild embarrassment or guilt, not shame or condemnation. The degree of candour in the personal disclosure will also depend on the situation and the opportunity. Yet, the chances are that we will have to be more candid than we are currently comfortable with. Did Henry’s tale make you cringe? If it did, you are probably missing out on opportunities to initiate high-trust relationships.

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