Being trustful is not the same as being naive. Trust pays off on many levels—not only in relationships but also in the economy. If you’re unable to trust, then you’re already a loser.
Recently, I spent two and a half weeks in Switzerland. This small, charming country is always a pleasure to visit, not only because of the beautiful environment and landmarks, but also because of its peaceful, laidback vibe.
Swiss towns differ greatly from eclectic, dynamic metropolises like London, Paris or Warsaw. In Switzerland, every place seems local and inviting. The largest city in Switzerland, Zurich, has merely 400,000 residents, and all it takes is a 15-minute train ride from the central station to find yourself in the heart of the Swiss countryside.
One day, I found myself in such a place. I was amused by the fact that villages in Switzerland look exactly like postcard images. There’s a lot of trees and green grass, the bells around the necks of cows and sheep tinkle as they move through the pastures, and the surrounding architecture consists of mostly wooden houses and small churches. The view of the Alps in the distance completes the idyllic landscape.
I noticed two things about the beautiful Swiss countryside that can’t be found in my home country, Poland.
First was the lack of fences. If there were any, they were so makeshift that they wouldn’t prevent anyone from crossing them.
The second thing was this:
There was a little self-service shop near one of the rural households that offered vegetables, fruits and homemade juices. Every product had its price tag, and a simple cash box was provided for those who would make a purchase. The shop was unattended because no one would steal anything from there.
Such a shop would never come into existence in Poland—and if it did, it wouldn’t last long. The goods would be stolen in the blink of an eye, and the cash box would probably share their fate.
It’s not that Poles have dishonesty running in our veins; we just have a different way of thinking. Most of us believe that people should keep an eye on their stuff, take care of their own interests and distrust others. If someone doesn’t look after their belongings, there’s no telling what will happen to them. This is by no means a subjective opinion: Economic research shows that Poland as a country has low levels of trust among residents, in contrast to—among others—Switzerland.
In the 1980s, economists began to examine the relationship between the level of trust and economic well-being, and even compared the trust levels with the GDP. Many questions remain unanswered, but the first conclusions were simple: Countries with high levels of trust among their citizens also have stable, well-functioning economies.
Trust is an essential element defining so-called social capital—that is, as the name suggests, the type of capital related to interpersonal relations. The concept of social capital contains certain norms of behavior that make societies function more efficiently. In countries with high levels of social capital, taxes are easy to collect because people trust that others will also pay them. Additionally, businesses operate more efficiently; contracts are concluded faster and more easily, and unpaid invoices are rare.
In countries with low levels of social capital, the situation looks quite the opposite. The lack of trust in the government and public authorities makes citizens try to avoid paying taxes. (If the politicians are corrupt, people don’t believe that their money will be spent effectively.) The lack of trust in a business counterparty creates additional transaction costs: spending more time on formulating an agreement, hiring lawyers to search for loopholes, insisting on written confirmation of every little detail … and after all this bureaucracy, a contractor can’t be sure if the invoice will be settled on time—or settled at all!
When it comes to the geographic distribution of social capital leaders, some rules are easy to spot. In Europe, the ranking of most trusting nations is dominated by the Nordic countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. They are followed by Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany. Globally, high levels of trust are observed in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. It’s easy to notice that these countries have one other thing in common: They are all developed economically, with a long history of functioning civil societies.
On the other hand, there’s no surprise when it comes to the least trustful nations. Economically unstable African and Latin American countries, leading the world corruption rankings, are strongly represented here. In Europe, distrusting nations can be divided into two groups. The first one consists of “economically challenged” countries in the southern part of the continent (like Portugal, Greece and Cyprus), while the second group consists of post-socialist countries (including Poland, Romania and Slovakia). The communist regime left a dark legacy in Eastern Europe, where, according to the research, people generally trust only members of their close family.
Is Poland, or any other country, able to escape the trap of mistrust? To answer this question, one would need to know which factor comes first: well-being or trust. Are wealthy people more trustful, or do trustful people get richer faster?
Well, there lies the problem—we don’t know. It’s a “chicken-or-egg” situation. The vicious circle harms distrustful nations that still live according to Lenin’s motto: “Trust is good, but control is better.”
Although warding off the ghosts of the past is hard, the only way to see change is to effect it ourselves, especially because trust pays off not only on macro levels but also in our everyday lives.
Sure, not everyone is worthy of being trusted, but everyone is worth being given the benefit of the doubt. If you assume that another person has good intentions, you’ll treat them more sincerely and warmly—and that creates a space to build the foundation of a solid relationship (of any kind). If you trust, you may be betrayed or frustrated, but you may also win big. It’s worth taking that risk.
On the other hand, if you automatically assume that people are malicious and unreliable by nature, you’re shutting the door on creating an honest connection with anyone. I know it’s not easy, especially if you’ve been hurt or disappointed by others in the past (maybe even multiple times). But every person is a whole new story. If you’re distrustful, you risk having a shallow life that’s full of regret and devoid of profoundly emotional moments. Without trust in people, you’ve already lost.