Why You Should Trust In Others (Or Not)

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CURIOSITY KILLED THE CAT

According to author Louise Hay, we’re taught to fear the unknown from an early age.

When we were wee boys and girls, our parents warned us not to talk to strangers. We’ve also been told not to go poking our noses where they didn’t belong.

This advice has been around for centuries. In Shakespeare’s, “Much Ado About Nothing,” performed circa 1599, Claudio says in Act 5, Scene 1: 

What, courage man!
What though care killed a cat,
Thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.

Fast forward to 400 years later and we’re still giving curiosity a bad rap. 

Why?

Well, to put it bluntly: we don’t want our children to end up like Susie Salmon in “The Lovely Bones.”

So if you’re going to San Francisco, don’t only be sure to wear a flower in your hair. Be sure to pack a taser gun and keep it fully charged. 

If you plan on hitchhiking there, maybe watch the Ted Bundy documentary on Netflix first and let me know how you feel? You might end up putting away your boots and opting for a sedentary lifestyle.

More often than not, we pay heed to these warnings because they come from trusted sources, uttered by those who keep our best interests at heart: mothers, fathers, friends and mentors.

We pay heed for fear of ending up in some dank basement, gagged and tied to a radiator, with search parties roaming the woods desperately calling out our names.

So why go anywhere, really? Just let your passport expire. Traveling is so overrated, anyway.

Heck, 58% of Americans don’t even own a passport. They’ve watched those Liam Neeson movies way too many times. Why get kidnapped in Europe when you could hightail it to Texas? 

Think about it. Would you rather get your privacy invaded repeatedly by a group of French gypsies? Or would you rather ride a mechanical bull at the Pesky Cowgirl saloon in Houston?

Decisions, people. Decisions.

PETTY LARCENY

I haven’t been completely transparent with you, dear reader.

Because — you see — everything I’ve written so far might suggest that I’d rather wipe my ass with a perfectly valid plane ticket to Fiji, rather than hand it over to the flight attendant so that she could scan it at the airport gate so that I could board that plane to paradise.

Also, I may have given you the impression that my asshole clenches whenever a stranger gets dangerously close to me — like, I-can-feel-your-hot-nostril-breath-on-my-cheeks kind of close.

And it may appear to you, finally, that I think about Ted Bundy all the time and would bet my bottom dollar that someone like him is planning my disappearance from this world.

If this is what you’ve gathered from my words so far, then I sincerely apologize.

Because — you see — this kitty rolls his eyes at the phrase, “curiosity killed the cat.” And yes — this was why my wallet was stolen in the streets of Senegal when I was a wee 20-year old young man (pardon my constant use of the Irish “wee” expression — I’m currently rewatching “Derry Girls” on Netflix!)

The Senegalese theft wasn’t subtle by any means; not your regular I’ll-help-myself-to-Ivan’s-open-bag-when-he’s-not-looking kind of robbery. 

It happened in broad daylight while I was minding my own business walking down the streets of Dakar.

Some random, smiley dude came up to me as I was walking and complimented my camouflage shorts. He liked my shorts so much, he said, that he started feeling their cuffed hems. Okay, I thought to myself. This is how they roll in Senegal.

But then, without breaking his smile, he groped in my camouflaged pocket for loose change. 

Qu’est ce que c’est?! I said in my broken French. “What you think to do, man?” I asked him.

I was so focused on Smiley Dude, I didn’t even notice when Slippery Dude approached me from the other side to grope in my other pocket and steal my other belongings (including my wallet.)

I speed-walked to the nearest café post-crime and sat at a bistro table by the window — my head in my hands — wondering why the fuck was I in Senegal to begin with?!

Well, I’ll tell you why.

Because I was too curious. 

Now, was I this badass adventurer who got a kick out of traveling to potentially “dangerous” areas? Was I this unrelenting bohemian who trusted blindly in the kindness of strangers?

Nope.

Like so many others on this floating rock, I tend to fear the unknown. Some of these fears are rational, whereas others are irrational

If I’m able to pinpoint which of these are the latter, then I’m likely to plunge headfirst into the unknown.

This defied my old roommate’s comprehension. When I expressed to him my love for travel because it yanked me from the comfortable spheres I’d been living in most of my life, I might as well have been talking to a brick wall.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, turning his attention back to the TV and spreading his limbs on our living room couch. “What’s the point of traveling when New York City has everything I need?”

TRUST & TRANSPARENCY

We fear the unknown and yet sometimes we get into cars with strangers, thereby ignoring the sagacious advice of our parents.

But hailing an Uber isn’t quite the same as sticking your thumb out along the side of the highway.

In Rachel Botsman’s book, “Who Can You Trust?” the author points out that we often place blind trust in the people, places and things that offer quick solutions to our vast catalog of problems. 

This is because our transaction-driven economy relies greatly on rating systems and reputation scores, not only to keep businesses afloat but to pervade the value of trust in social environments as well. 

Why swindle your customers, or dazzle someone with a smile as you steal their possessions, when your reputation can either make or break your future interactions?

If money makes the world go round, then trust keeps it from spinning off its axes and colliding into Mars.

Now and then, however, we’re cheated out of wealth by the Bernie Madoffs of the world. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book, “Talking to Strangers,” they convince us to empty our pockets and invest in “lucrative” opportunities that’ll yield massive returns on our investment.   

This is the art of transparency. Or, rather, the lack thereof.

It’s not that these con artists reject the idea of trust as a two-way street. In fact, they prey on this notion and use it to their advantage. Their lust for personal gain overrides their moral compasses.

They withhold transparency while feigning interest in establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with you just so they could make a pretty penny.

However, as Botsman puts it, establishing a healthy trust system can help societies flourish. This isn’t something new, by the way. 

Take the Maghribi traders in Northern Africa — an example that dates back to the eleventh century. These traders developed a rating system for their Sicilian partners who lived hundreds of miles away. Imagine boosting your reputation score without the convenience of technology — quite impressive when all you had back then was word-of-mouth and the pigeon post.  

Nowadays, technology gives credence to a sense of blind trust so much so that China is already developing a digital system of “trustworthiness” for its citizens.

Spearheaded by the Chinese Social Credit System (SCS), 1.4 billion people will experience first-hand what it feels like to be in an episode of “Black Mirror.”  

If this system were to take off, personal ratings among Chinese citizens will be judged closely against myriad aspects of their everyday lives, from approving memberships on popular dating sites to their positions on a queue to secure travel visas. 

And beware if you’re friends with someone who’s scoring low on the totem pole of trust. If that person criticizes the Chinese government, and employees over at the SCS get wind of it, your score may be severely lowered simply by association.

Don’t you love China’s “socialist democracy?

STRANGERS IN ACTION

Here’s my point:

Trust in others so long as you can sense transparency beyond the benefit of the doubt, but also as you mitigate your own system of irrational fears.

Here’s an example:

Recently, I was at Whole Foods in West Hollywood when a stranger approached me and asked if he could use my phone.

It was hard for me to believe that this man, who appeared to be just a few years older than me, didn’t own a cell phone. Or as he put it, had “left it in [his] car.”

I looked at this man in his flannel shirt, unbuttoned to reveal the Metallica t-shirt underneath, his long golden hair in a ponytail, and thought to myself, you’re kidding me, right?  

To judge his level of transparency, my brain computed Ponytail Man’s gestures during the seconds that encapsulated our exchange. I could hear the CPU churning in my mind like paper out of an inkjet printer.

I repeated his words back to him incredulously: You left your phone in your car?

“Looks like!” he said and laughed away his blunder, as if to suggest: Silly me! I can’t believe I left my phone in the car! Sure, I can walk 40-feet to the parking lot to retrieve it, but let me bother you instead!

His nervous laughter was supposed to bring levity to the situation. It was supposed to unfurl the lines in my brow that proved I was one skeptical sonuvabitch. But it didn’t. And so I grew evermore suspicious of this man. 

He said he needed to call his girlfriend. Okay. When I asked him what her number was so that I could dial it on my phone (and thereby ensure he wasn’t calling someone in Nigeria), he shrugged nervously and said that he couldn’t remember it “off-hand,” all the while failing to maintain eye contact.

Strike one.

When I asked him how he planned on reaching her, he said that he could get her number from her Instagram profile and asked if I had the app installed on my phone. (I could’ve lied and said, “no,” but that’s not my style.)

I asked for her username to search on Instagram, but he couldn’t remember it “off-hand.” “Maybe I could type it in the search field,” he suggested. “I’m sure it’ll come to me that way.” 

Strike two.

Here’s a suggestion, I thought:

You could copy my iPhone’s IMEI number and send it to your hacker friend who’s sipping on a mug of hot chocolate with floating marshmallows as we speak, awaiting further instructions in the back of a van that’s been converted into a digital dreamland of coiled computer cables and shelves filled with monitors each displaying complex hacker code.

How ’bout them apples?

And then my eyes scanned down to his feet. He was wearing a pair of Nike Cortez, which, if I recalled correctly, was the premier running shoe of the 1972 Olympics.

Is he going to make a run for it after borrowing my phone?

But before I could make a final decision, a tall, lanky woman with short black hair came out of nowhere, looking like Uma Thurman from “Pulp Fiction.”

This was the purported girlfriend that Ponytail Man had been trying to reach.

“You left your phone in the car, babe,” said the woman.

“Where’d you go, babe?” He said. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”

“I’m here,” she said as I casually disappeared into one of the aisles. 

Later, as I waited in line at the self-checkout section, I was pretty upset at myself for failing to place trust in that total stranger. That poor man had a girlfriend after all and she had been kind enough to go back to their car and grab his phone.

But then, as I was loading my groceries in the car, I noticed Ponytail Man speaking to an elderly lady across the parking lot. He laughed his “silly me!” laugh and soon enough the lady was handing him her phone.

“The kindness of strangers,” I muttered as I drove away.

Isn’t it wonderful?

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