The currency of trust

27 10 2015

Who do you trust? Only your closest family and friends? Everyone until they do something to lose your trust? Our elected politicians?

I’m usually the type of person who trusts almost anyone, unless there’s a good reason not to. In addition to being an idealist, I attribute this mindset to refusing to live in fear…and rarely watching the television news. I worked at a bakery where we regularly gave people IOUs and allowed people to send payment in the mail, and they did (usually along with a thank you card). I attended a small university where we’d leave our laptops in the library when we went to the cafeteria for dinner. My undergrad research suggests that I’m in the minority.

In 1960, 58% of Americans agreed that most people can be trusted, but by 1993, this proportion declined by a third to 37% (Putnam, 1995). Social trust is considered one of the four dimensions of the broader study of “social capital,” along with informal social ties, formal social ties and norms of collective action (Liu and Besser, 2003). Social capital encompasses the features of social organisation that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit (Putnam, 1995). While social capital contributes to safer, healthier, more civically engaged communities, Putnam argues that it is on its decline. One of his explanations is greater mobility, or the “re-potting hypothesis” meaning that if we disrupt our roots, it also disrupts our acquisition of social capital; when you move, you basically start at zero.

In the past 10 months, I’ve been moving around quite a lot, so I could only expect my trust bank account would be quite low. When you are a stranger and are surrounded by strangers, and you are taught not to talk to strangers, there is no reason for trust to be pre-existent or for there to be even much potential for it to grow, because this would require talking to strangers. But when trust does emerge, it is a delightful surprise that has enriched my travels.

In Morocco, I was told repeatedly not to trust anyone and this was one of the greatest challenges, and in the end, impossible. However, I did learn to be more discriminating than usual. But in the last weeks, travelling from Spain to Norway, I’ve had incredible, authentic connections and experiences, all thanks to a mutual exchange of trust.

Exhibit A: Couchsurfing

I joined Couchsurfing in 2009. Couchsurfing is a global, online network where travellers can stay with locals, for free. It started in 2004 and now has 10 million members worldwide and describes itself as the “world’s premier social travel platform.” You search for hosts in a particular location, browse their profiles, then send a request to stay with them on a particular date, and then they have the opportunity to accept or decline your request.

It is a way to travel cheaply and more authentically – get local recommendations, stay in a cozy home rather than an impersonal hotel, use the groups and events features on the website to meet other travellers and locals, and give back by hosting someone yourself. As the website describes, “We envision a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.” In my experiences, hosts not only share their space, but also their stories.

I used it for the first time in 2010 when my sister and I travelled to South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. I had wanted to go to Quebec City; she wanted a sunny all-inclusive – visiting the south and couch surfing was the compromise. More recently, Susie and I stayed with two amazing hosts while cycling the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Sete in southern France. This morning, I said goodbye to another incredible host in Stavanger, Norway. I’m repeatedly overwhelmed by their generosity and trust in handing over the keys to their homes.

Christian, my Couchsurfing host in Stavanger, even let me borrow his car to drive about 2 hours to Preikestolen, or “Pulpit’s Rock,” a steep, 600-metre cliff towering over the Lysefjorden that is one of Norway’s most visited attractions. Because it’s the off-season, there were’t any buses running, so without the car, I wouldn’t have been able to go! The 3.8 km hike one-way up to Preikestolen was very wet, and at times very cold and windy and intense. In fact, at one point near the top I felt like I’d stepped into the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and into the climactic mountaintop scene where Victor Frankenstein confronts his monstrous creature, exemplifying pathetic fallacy as I remember being taught in high school and as I remember along the trail. Because of the thick fog, I was unable to see the fjord below as typical photos show, however the white abyss offered an eery and epic feeling, and there were many other extraordinary vistas along the way.

Exhibit B: Rideshares

Since returning to Europe, another key part of travelling as inexpensively as possible is rideshares! In the last month or so, I’ve taken 5 rideshares covering nearly 2000 kilometres, and costing just over the equivalent of $160, which works out to about $0.08 per kilometre, on average. In addition to the cost savings, I’ve also had the benefit of many pleasant and interesting conversations, including a French guy who loved Canada and poutine so much that he started a poutine food truck in the French Alps near Geneva. And crowdfunded 10,000 euros to do so! Or in another ride, discussed Denmark’s social welfare system with a social worker who had grown up in communist Yugoslavia, and immigrated to Denmark at 13 with his family. Or another two Danes who had just returned from a traumatic and intense two weeks in Kos, Turkey where they had volunteered to help receive refugees with around 400 arriving by boat every night. Kos is at the frontlines of what the Guardian has called “the biggest refugee crisis since WWII.”

Further, considering that most of these vehicles were at maximum capacity, rideshares use less fossil fuels than the alternatives. How does ridesharing compare to other means of public transport in terms of CO2 emissions? Good question…

Emissions per mile

Estimated CO2 emissions (pounds) per passenger mile for average and full occupancy transportation options (Federal Transit Administration, US Department of Transportation, 2009)

BlaBlaCar is presently the most popular ridesharing website in Spain and France, and here drivers post their itinerary and price, then passengers can search for their desired route and send a message to the driver of their choice. Similar to Couchsurfing, there’s a two-way review system, which can give future passengers an idea of what the driver is like, and vice-versa. This review and rating system is what helps build trust within the BlaBlaCar community – you can see how many rides the person has taken or given, and whether or not they’ve been positive. Also, drivers can indicate their preferences in terms of whether or not they play music or like chatting or accept pets.

In some ways, the worldwide web has contributed to the decline of social capital as people spend more leisure time alone and in front of screens, and less on social interaction. But there is hope as online platforms, like Couchsurfing and BlaBlaCar, give us the opportunity to trust strangers, and for me, this mutual trust has bought me experiences that money cannot.




3 responses

27 10 2015

Well written and thoughtful as always.

27 10 2015
Nanci Courtney

I like this essay on trust. I have lost a number of times on the money angle – and am sure that many people consider me naive. But I am just fine with the fact that I was in a position to loose and not be harmed. Better to try and loose then never try at all – I believe this is a paraphrase on love…

29 10 2015

Yes, I agree, Nanci. Me too! I would prefer the idealistic and hopeful road. Thanks for reading!

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