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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, make language take a polygraph test.
Coming up in today’s show: trust. You can trust me. Or can you? I’m just a person who lives in your head.
The new Allusionist live show is coming to New Zealand - we’ll be doing shows in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington in April and May. Amazing thing is, all the New Zealand shows were arranged by listeners - so huge thanks to Claire, Gary and Rachael, especially as this is the second time you’ve had to arrange these shows since I was medically thwarted from performing the ones that were planned for last year. Head to theallusionist.org/events for dates and tickets, and Australia, we’ll be coming to you next.
On with the show.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: I thought it was going to be really easy to define trust. My definition of trust is: trust is a confident relationship with the unknown. Confidence is really at the heart of trust. But if you know the outcome of something, if there is no risk, you don't actually need trust. So what I was trying to pair it with is something unknown - the uncertainty piece. So it's this idea that we are placing our faith in someone or something or a system where you don't actually know the outcome and how it's going to work. When you think of it like that, it's like this alchemy of fears and hopes and desires, so it's got the high and the low, and that's what trust is made up of, it's this friction between these two things.
My name is Rachel Botsman. I am an expert on trust and the author of a book called Who Can You Trust?
HZ: Rachel has been studying trust for the past decade. The word has been in the English language for at least 800 years, we got it from the Old Norse ‘traust’, meaning confidence, help or strength.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: Trust is really interesting, because many words change in meaning but trust has always - from the beginning of time, we've always described it in the language of faith, reliance and confidence and belief. It's always had those four things within the definition. It was used and defined quite a lot, and then there's this massive gap until around the 1600s when people didn't really talk about trust, it wasn't a word that people tried to define; then it popped back up. Then the 1800s. And then it went silent again until the 1950s, when trust theory became a whole discipline in itself. And then it sort of morphed and changed, so in the 80s it moved from the world of economics - so trust was really something that was used in the world of financial language - into the world of social science and behavioural psychology. And then you see the definitions change again but still have the same meaning.
HZ: Was some of the older use - I guess the 19th century and before that - more religious, and then it became an economic thing somewhat later?
RACHEL BOTSMAN: It's a great question. The thing that we were placing our faith in, what we were trusting - the definitions were very much around that. So yes, religion, philosophers, leaders, versus thinking of trust as something quite interpersonal and that everyone has the right to trust one another; it's not this upward thing that you trust people that are higher than you or you trust higher forces. So I think that's really interesting in itself. And then the other really big shift was when - this sounds so silly, but when it started to become around your expectations of someone else. So realising that it was actually quite a symbiotic relationship: I can't decide whether you trust me, you make that choice; you give me your trust. And that sounds so obvious now, but that was a huge shift in people thinking and defining trust, was when it was realising the giver not the receiver is in control of the way this belief works.
HZ: And at this point in time, huge shifts are happening in trust. People are less likely to trust institutions than they used to be, but increasingly trust their peers - but are also trusting people they don’t know in real life. Businesses like Airbnb and Uber rely on people trusting strangers; both sides, the customers and the service providers, have to trust. And then the likes of Tripadvisor and Amazon that involve feedback from the general public - so, on the one hand, you might trust what they say more than a business that wants to sell you something. But on the other hand - who are they? Are they trustworthy? What if they’re planted by the business that wants to sell you something? How do we deduce who’s trusty and who’s not trusty and who’s not even real?
RACHEL BOTSMAN: A fake review tends to be very descriptive, so very detailed, but detailed around fairly generic things. So like a fake hotel, if they've never been there, they'll describe things that you would see in other hotels, or they will get very detailed about the room. But the details that will be missing are things like orientation and spatial conception, and anything that's really about the experience of being there is very different from a real review.
HZ: Researchers at Cornell University also found that genuine reviewers use more nouns and punctuation, whereas the deceivers use more verbs and long words.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: But what they've found is that the language is so predictable in what people are using that artificial intelligence can pick up these fake reviews better than humans, because there are language patterns. Which I actually find reassuring, that we now have the technology that they'll be about weed out fake reviews, and that machines can detect those better than humans.
HZ: Oh, we sweet credulous human mugs.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: We tend to be more discerning face to face than in digital environments. Digital environments, we tend to look at a few trust signals, a few clues, and then make a decision. And often what we're making the decision around is: is that person familiar to us? And we base our trust on that. So it can be as simple as "They went to the same school as me!" Or they're from the same region as me, the same color skin, same age. We respond very quickly to signals, which is what makes it quite fragile and an even dangerous.
HZ: So you could put the same text with different visual cues and get a different response?
RACHEL BOTSMAN: Yeah. Whereas we tend to be slightly more discerning face to face. But we can be manipulated by the same thing. And the interesting thing is, people who are masters at deception actually understand trust better than anyone, because they know exactly the information to put in front of you. So they know exactly what you need to believe something or someone. So it's not a case of too much information; they're very clever actually with their timing, in that they realize that they can't build that trust overnight.
HZ: OK, so we’re apt to trust human con artists, because they’re good at making us do that; what about things that aren’t actually human?
RACHEL BOTSMAN: I have a real issue with the number of machines that are female.
HZ: Yes! I'm very pissed off about this.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: I don't know how it hasn't become a bigger topic. How do we accept this, though? Viv, Cortana, Alexa, Tay, the bots, the virtual assistant bots, they're all women. I find it awful when you watch young children particularly shouting at Alexa. They're shouting at a woman, they're barking instructions at a woman. And the reason why they have done this is they've proven this, that we tend to trust things with a female identity more than a male identity. There's really interesting work coming out of MIT that when they call a self-driving car, when they give it a male name - let's just say Tom - and then they give it a female name like Viv, and the car does something wrong, they are more forgiving of the car if it has a female gender than if it has a male name.
HZ: Is that because of the stereotype that women are bad drivers? "Oh Viv, classic Viv!"
RACHEL BOTSMAN: I don't know. But that's the thing: is it purely tied to the context of driving and the stereotypes around that, or will it just extend - because it's not just in cars now, it is in home assistance, like the medical app that that just launched here which is like the virtual doctors, Livia, it's a female name. So it’s just the start of something much bigger where they know that we tend to trust female identities more than male identities around machines and so it's just something that's going to be implicit in the design? I'm not an expert on that so I don't know, but it's interesting and worrying.
HZ: It just makes me not want to use them, because I don't really want to treat something that is female-appearing as servile.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: I know! But I am very aware of this and how quickly I can't call it 'it'. So I don't know why there isn't more debate around this, why we're not speaking up now, because it could be a huge problem that machines adopt female identities.
HZ: Of course, there are male voices for the machines too, like the melancholy original British Siri. Siri, by the way, is a female name in India, meaning wealth, and Scandinavia, from the Old Norse for ‘beautiful victory’. But the week of this episode, a team of researchers, linguists and sound designers unveiled Q, a gender-neutral voice that could be used for digital assistants and smart homes. So let’s see whether that catches on. But why should we be trusting robots, eh? I dunno, maybe they can’t be worse than humans. We humans mess up and break trust all the time, and it can be hard to regain it, although a decent apology helps. So how do you say sorry and sound like you really mean it?
RACHEL BOTSMAN: I don't think it is any different from the advice you give a four-year-old.
HZ: What would you tell a four-year-old?
RACHEL BOTSMAN: Do you mean it? So I am thinking about my children. I don't believe you; don't tell me sorry until you've really thought about what you've done - which then is usually 30 seconds later, "I've thought about it," I'm sorry, I don't believe you. So have they really processed it? Do they really understand what they did? Do they really understand the consequences of what they did? And that this isn't going to happen over - I don't want a one minute apology. I mean this asking a lot of a four year old. My seven year old can get there, because he has a concept of what empathy is; but he will come back three days later now and go, "You know what, I lied about my" - serious business - "my advent calendar. I did open every single window at the beginning of December and I hid it under my bed. And I ate all the chocolates on one day." And what he said to me was really interesting: the lie was worse that the act. But that took time; so why as adults do we rush the apology or we think that people going to believe us when there hasn't been any real change or we haven't really taken responsibility for what we've done? And I think companies make that mistake. And I get it, because they've got their legal teams, they've got their communications teams and they got their crisis teams, and they're trying to manage the message and they're so restricted by what they say that they miss that basic - that feeling that they're genuinely sorry and that they're going to change and that they really acknowledge - they can understand the consequence of what they've done. So it's a long-winded way of saying, "I want to believe where you're coming from when you make some kind of apology, even if you don't know where you're going to." So they're often, "I've gotta apologize and then I have got to have a plan." No, you can just apologise and say, "I actually don't know how to fix this." So I think there's a vulnerability that most leaders, they're very frightened of talking in that language of uncertainty and vulnerability which is so tied to trust. The biggest jump you can have in someone trusting you is when you say, "I don't know the answer to that" or "Will you help me?" or "I'm not sure". That's how you earn people's trust: it's not through overconfidence or always telling people you know what the answer is.
HZ: So that's really a power move, to admit vulnerability.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: Hundred percent but you can't do it with the intention of "I'm going to intentionally be vulnerable right now and show some vulnerability."
HZ: “Sowwy!” Also I do prefer it when they phrase it as, 'Sorry for this thing I have done" rather than "Sorry if you're upset by the thing I've done" because that sounds like it's your fault for being upset.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: Exactly. And this is where I think it's so hard - I'm married to a lawyer so I know how much you know you cannot take on the language of responsibility and the language of accountability, but I think that's what people are fed up with now. I don't want you to apologise for the way I'm feeling towards you. That's not why I don't trust you. I want you to apologize because you did something wrong, or you lied to me. And so that's the feeling that people feel like they being duped or someone is being disingenuous with them.
HZ: It’s a precious commodity, trust, and the word is, too. And so Rachel is worried about it.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: It’s everywhere.
HZ: What happens if a word ends up being a victim of its own success?
RACHEL BOTSMAN: I always know when a word is having its moment in the sun when big conferences, it becomes the theme at the conference, or I get slightly nervous when you start to see it as the tag line in really big commercial brands because it's a word that's starting to become co-opted and commercialised, because people go, "Oh, it's resonating with a lot of people.” It's not a brand. Trust isn't a brand that you should use. It's a social glue that when it breaks down, it has really huge consequences to our lives. When terms become so broad that they lose their meaning, they become completely diluted. And this is actually my fear around trust right now, is that it's become the word of the moment that is being used in so many different contexts that are we actually diluting something? One of the most important words we have in the human language, that is so fundamental to our relationships, that are we taking the meaning and importance out of it by its overuse? It makes me feel quite sad, because ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ and ‘transformation’: I could think of five words that I could replace that word with. I can't think of another - maybe ‘faith’, but even faith is too loaded with religion.
HZ: Faith seems more undeserved. It seems more unearned than trust. And it's interesting to me that trust often comes with the verb 'earn' because it feels like a difficult thing to achieve.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: Really difficult to achieve, and incredibly... So ‘confidence’ isn't fragile enough. I think we have to be very careful with words that they've stood the test of time, they've had the same meaning because they are so fundamental to what makes us human, that we don't abuse them to the point where they become meaningless.
HZ: Rachel Botsman is an expert on trust and the author of books including What’s Mine Is Yours and Who Can You Trust?. And coming up in today’s Minillusionist, she tackles a term that I have never trusted. ‘Influencer’.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: We've been looking a lot at influencers, the connection between influence and trust, how they're trying to be authentic; but there's nothing authentic about it because it feels completely fabricated. We've been some research on the history of the word influence. And actually the relationship between influence and trust hasn't really been studied. I think it's going to be the next big thing: why do we trust influencers? And one thing that we discovered is that the word 'influence', it came from the word 'to flow from a source'.
HZ: Yup, from medieval Latin. It referred to water, but also other substances, and forces, and even astrological power.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: But it had a very negative connotation. I've never made this connection but of course the word 'influenza' is related to the word 'influence', which was given to the Spanish flu because people didn't understand the source of something, they didn't understand that society was being taken hold by this thing. Again, I think that's fascinating when words sort of have a positive positive connotation right now, an influencer is kind of like a celebrity, something that people sort of aspire to be.
HZ: Rather than something that can kill you.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: Or it's like manipulation. I don't want to be a manipulator - like "Kim Kardashian, what do you do?" "I'm a manipulator!" I don't think she'd use that term. So how are manipulation and influence related to one another? Is there a difference?
HZ: Is there a difference?
RACHEL BOTSMAN: Well, this what I'm trying work through.
HZ: I suppose you can have influence without manipulating.
RACHEL BOTSMAN: I think manipulation comes back more to intent. When you manipulate, you know what the outcome is, you're more in control of it. You know you want to move that person there; whereas influence, I don't think you're always thinking about how you want to shape that person's belief or their ideas, which is probably why they went with 'influencers' not 'manipulators'. But I don't think anyone really wants to know they're being influenced.
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Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is...
ostrakon, noun: a potsherd or tile, especially one used in ostracism in Greece or for writing on in ancient Egypt.
Going off dictionary for a moment, lest you’re wondering what this ostrakon has to do with ostracism: in Athens, in the 5th century BC, citizens could vote to ostracise someone they thought was dangerous to society or tyrannical or a tad pesky. They would write a person’s name on an ostrakon - usually a piece of pottery, broken pottery bits were the post-it notes of their day - and the person whose name appeared on the most ostraka was exiled for ten years. They were ostracised! By the ostrakon! Try using it in a sentence today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. The music is by Martin Austwick; find his work at palebirdmusic.com. Find allusionistshow on Twitter, Facebook AND Instagram - just set one of those up, a mere 4¼ years into the show. And you can find every episode, additional information, transcripts, the dictionary entries for the randomly selected words from the dictionary, at the show’s forever home, theallusionist.org.