When And Why Do We Trust Strangers? And Why Some Asians Don’t Often Trust

To trust or not to trust? That’s the question we often ask ourselves when we meet someone for the first time or encounter strangers. Trust: it’s about believing others, taking their word and seeing the best in them.

I’m not one who trusts easily. The number of friends whom I hang out with regularly can be counted on one hand. Generally, I avoid talking to people I don’t know outside of work, be it at social occasions or on the streets. It takes a while for me to warm to someone.

Trust. Getting close with and sharing moments together usually doesn't come easy | Weekly Photo Challenge: Connect.

Trust. Getting close with and sharing moments together usually doesn’t come easy | Weekly Photo Challenge: Connect.

Trust. It’s embedded within the unconscious rituals of everyday life: walking to work, we trust passer-bys won’t stab us. We trust shopkeepers will give us the correct change at the cashier. We trust no chef spat into food we ordered. Trust. It’s about going forwards: we trust and travel to get on with our lives. And whether we trust others usually depends on where we’ve been and where we’re from.

Sometimes we hesitate to trust those we barely know because we’ve always kept “stranger danger” in mind. Better safe than sorry taking someone’s words and actions for what they seem. As Indonesian-born blogger Marcella Purnama writes on growing up in one of the numerous crime ridden Asian cities, she “wasn’t really taught to be nice to strangers. When someone asks for help, ignore them.” Trust, in this sense, is influenced by our upbringing.

When I went to primary school in Malaysia, my family lived in a high-security house. A massive wrought iron gate blocked our driveway’s entrance. A double-padlocked stainless steel grille gate blocked the front door of our house. ….sitting in the living room on a hot, humid weekend afternoon, the “ding” of an ice-cream pushcart filled the air. Mum and I hurried outside with some coins, and she flagged it down. I looked up at the tanned chap on the pushcart from behind the prison-like driveway gate, my hand feeling numb from clenching a cool icy pole packet. Instantly the ice-cream seller looked away, and my eyes darted to the ground. Never saw him again.

Time and time again cultural values play a part in whether we trust others, shaping the way we see the world. “Listen to others”, dad always told me. As a kid, I didn’t speak much and people stared at me – probably wondering why I was so quiet – and I shrank away, frightened. “The gweilos are only good at smooth talking,” dad also always said.

Learning to trust is a journey.

Learning to trust is a journey.

And so in this diverse world, sometimes stereotypical perceptions get in the way of trust. In Australia, there is a lack of interpersonal trust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Sometimes the “Us and Them” dichotomy stands between us of different heritage, sometimes racism. Or perhaps some of us are afraid of offending another culture or getting judged for our culture; we’d much rather keep to ourselves.

At times whether we trust strangers depends on our personalities, not so much our background. We might simply be outgoing and others might gravitate towards that, and we in turn trust them. Or we might simply be shy and rather be alone.

Whether we trust also depends on context. We’re inclined to trust someone whom we met not too long ago when we feel they mean well. When we have things in common and click through mutual understanding. When one or the other is chatty, there’ll probably be light-hearted conversation to break the ice – little by little each of us opens up about ourselves and connect. In short, we trust when we’re comfortable around each other.

When we trust, it doesn’t mean we love. And when we love, it doesn’t mean we trust. When we trust or love, we surrender a part of ourselves into another’s hands. But love is about attraction and affection. Trust, about confidence. In many instances, we think before we trust – calculated trust. On learning to trust, Ernest Hemingway said:

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

Sometimes it takes a while before we trust someone new.

Sometimes it takes a while before we trust someone new.

…two years ago in Melbourne. Catching up with salsa dancer guy friend from another Asian mother over sushi dinner. We ate. Talked. Laughed. 9pm. “I’ll walk you home,” he said. My heart beat a little faster, alarm bells going off in my head. “No. I’m okay. Only fifteen minutes away.” Walking someone home: a fine line between being creepy and getting personal with someone. Who knows where he’ll drag me into the night? But we’ve known each other for more than a year. We talk often…and share the same values. I relented, and we shimmied up the slope to my place. Suddenly, we paused beside an alley. I gingerly looked down the darkened detour, and so did he….then we hastily walked on. Reached my place. Hugged goodbye as the winter wind enveloped us. Never saw him again.

When we trust someone new, we’re vulnerable. It’s scary. On one hand, you can’t really be sure if they have good intentions. On the other, going along with their word we might go on a new adventure, start a new chapter with them. That’s why we trust. We trust to learn. To build bridges, build relationships from a single moment of faith. And perhaps we trust to earn trust back in return being the social creatures that we all are.

But do we ever trust out of politeness, trust with a heavy heart because we feel that it’s rude not to? Maybe. Nevertheless, we swallow our pride when we choose to trust, even if it’s trusting someone for a momentary moment. Each of us is unique and who are we to judge each other, as author Rebecca Rossi writes:

“We need to look beyond ego, expectation and comparison. We are all individuals and that is what makes us so wonderful and special.”

Trust someone and who knows where that will take us.

Trust someone and who knows where that will take us.

…a few months ago in Melbourne. Birthday party at someone’s house and everyone there except me finds it normal wearing shoes indoors. 8.30pm and somehow I had to get home this frigid mid-winter’s night. Slowly, I got into the car belonging to fire twirler man friend whom I met earlier in the year. “Shall I drop you off where I picked you up?” Silence. More silence. The ride a few blocks from my house to the party wasn’t eventful or memorable, but he comes across…a nice guy. “How about…home?” I said. So home it was. The vehicle cruised down the highway into the darkness unknown, and neither of us said much. Ah, well. But the warm confines of the car felt very nice.

When we trust someone, we take our chances. It’s a leap of faith. And a moment where we don’t wonder “what if”.

Do you trust people you just met? Are you a people person?

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239 thoughts on “When And Why Do We Trust Strangers? And Why Some Asians Don’t Often Trust

  1. I don’t trust strangers easily. Actually, I don’t trust people easily. 🙂 But, I try not let it affect the conversations I make. I think it’s possible to strike a conversation with a person and maintain a fair distance. Sounds complex, but, it is possible. We’ve met many incredible and interesting people on our trips. I’d not get to know any of them if I’d stayed mum and wondered who they were.

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    • I agree with you. We can talk about parts of our lives with someone when we’re getting to know them, but at the same time we withhold our deepest thoughts and secrets from them. Keeping distance, as you said 🙂

      Very glad to hear you met many a nice people on your trips by trusting based on instinct. There really are nice people out there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An interesting distinction there, and one I was pretty surprised by! I’ve been living in Japan for about five years, and the trust in people is pretty high here. Of course, trust and intimacy are totally different things, and Japan (I think) lacks in the latter. But it’s interesting to hear how trust was not a given in Malaysia.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A very interesting article, Mabel. Yes, I think that trust can only come if we trust someone enough to get to know them better. I shudder now when I think back to how vulnerable I’ve been with absolute strangers when I was younger. Thankfully I’m still here to tell the tale, but as I’ve got older, I’ve learned to trust no-one implicitly until that trust has been earned over time.

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  4. trust is earned and to trust depends on a lot of things; where and how you met and how long you’ve known a person. i’m a little cautious in general but i always try to see the ‘good’ in a person.

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    • Wise words, Lola. Trust is such a valuable thing. So hard to give away, so easy to lose sometimes. So nice of you to try to see the good in each person – and I’m sure others see good in you too 🙂

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  5. I have strangers in my house on a more or less regular basis via a web-based community of travellers. So, in that way I guess it’s safe to say that I trust strangers. On the other hand, there’s a lot of strangers that I don’t trust: I live very close to the slum (in the slum some might say), which means we have more than our fair share of travelling gypsie thieves, rapists (mainly imported muslims), street violence and ‘home-grown’ junkies.

    It’s quite a shady place: bikes have to be kept locked at all times and other things that you’d like to keep (e.g. your kids toys), must be kept inside a storage room in the basement or inside the apartment.

    You can’t leave any valuables in your car overnight and even the barbeque/grill in our backyard is chained up and locked to a heavy table.
    Here and there you can even see public bikes (bikes that you can rent on a day pass or on a yearly basis for practically nothing) that are stolen and locked by the thieves that stole them!

    It’s tragic, but at the same time kind of funny: “I stole this bike and now I’ll lock it, so that no other dishonest thief can steal the bike that I stole. I worked my ass off stealing this bike, it’s mine now.”

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    • You really do see the best in others, C. I really enjoyed your post where you wrote about travelers staying over at your place – it looked like one big family in your house.

      It certainly sounds like a dodgy part of town you live in. Not like a place where you would go wandering out on your own at night. Pity kids toys get stolen as well – I would be devastated if someone stole my favourite stuffed monkey :/

      “You can’t leave any valuables in your car overnight ” That reminds me. In Malaysia, there are thieves who use scanners to scan the boot of your car and if it detects valuables, you will probably never see it again.

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  6. An interesting piece Mabel.
    Trust depends on our upbringing, and our own personality- how we are conditioned to think and perceive the intentions of people, Some people are naturally more inclined to trust than others. It also depends on the context . At times we are more gullible than others.
    I like how you have pointed out that trust and love are two distinct emotions , but the two put together makes a successful and happy relationship.
    I like the quote by Rebecca Rossi “We need to look beyond ego, expectation and comparison.’ to trust. This is so true. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Somali. Love the world gullible. Haven’t heard that in a while. We might be more gullible because we might see the best in others. Or too tired to think straight. Without trust and love, I don’t think we can get along with each other for a lifetime.

      Rebecca Rossi is a great writer and the quote is a very touching quote 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Wise of you to be cautious of others, Mofman. Unless you spend time with and have deep, long conversations with them, it’s hard to predict what they believe in and what they think about you.

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  7. I guess that’s just an Asian thing, Yes of course it can be about being an introvert or an extrovert nature in general but it has more to do with upbringing and place around where we grew up. I grew up listening to the same things you did, never to trust strangers (including not to take candies 😛 ) I find myself midway between an introvert and extrovert. It majorly depends on my mood if I’m chatty or not with people around me. But despite of that trusting them is something that is hard to come by. I never trust someone right away, someone asks for my phone number, or where I live, where I go to study, i immediately become uncomfortable. So I can totally relate with what you said in your post Mabel.

    And I loved the images you paired with your post. Brilliant ! ❤

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    • Never to take candies, awww. But I suppose what we were thought as kids about not trusting strangers has kept us level-headed all these years. Like you, when someone starts getting personal with me, the whole trust issue crosses my mind. I get jittery when they ask about where I work and live. Phone number? These days people usually ask me for my Facebook but I really don’t post much there 😀 You really can never be too careful with who you let into your life.

      Thank you for your nice words on my images. I had so much fun taking them over the last couple of months ❤

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  8. Like Sylvia, I tend to err on the side of trusting rather naively, and I chat away to anyone who happens to be around, at a bus stop or wherever. I hate it when people pass me by without raising their eyes or smiling. We’re in this world together to make the best of things, aren’t we, and the world feels better to me when I smile and chat. But it’s interesting to observe the differences in society. 🙂

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    • You sound like a very friendly person, Jo. Sometimes we really get a lot out of trusting strangers, like making a new friend for life and who knows what adventures that will take us. Yes, we’re really all in this world together and trust is actually what holds us all together 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Not sure how I missed this post, Mabel. It’s written beautifully and the photographs are excellent.
    Mabel, I think both trust and skepticism are important and contribute in their own ways. When it comes to relationships, trust is priceless. That said, inquiry and skepticism have also been of great value especially in the growth and progress of human thoughts, ideas and beliefs.

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    • That’s okay, Uday. There is so much more to life than blogging and reading blogs 🙂 That is so true. when we are curious, we often learn so much more. When we’re curious about someone, often we’re inclined to trust them to get to know them better. Well said.

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  10. online, I would pay more attention to what others’ intentions. I was a fool back then, trusting people easily and ended up with some problem on my side – they just don’t care. Nowadays, I try to collect as many information before making decision.
    Reading your experience in Malaysia, I remembered what my ex-boss said before. He said it is not easy to live in there as Chinese – Malay.

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  11. Very well written post, Mabel. In a large city, there are many times a day that one makes a decision to feel trust or mistrust of someone in which you come in contact. I am quite happy when I make the leap and have a nice conversation with a stranger- more often than not, people mean well and surprise me. I admit, though, that I’m acutely aware of the dangers out there!

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    • Thanks, Jane. That is so nice to hear you’ve had nice random conversations with strangers on the street. You never know who you may meet if you are brave enough to trust, and these moments tend to be the ones we remember down the track.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Isnt trust a funny old thing. I liked the way you said, trust doesnt mean love & love doesnt mean trust. I have this one person in my world, I have known him since I was 17 years old, I love him, I love him with all of my heart, and know him really well, but I dont trust him. Interesting how that works.

    It’s a case by case thing with trusting people I just meet. Normally I know straight up whether that person is worthy of my trust. But then there are people in my blog world, people I have never met, people like you that I trust them and feel comfortable sharing the real me with.

    I am finding that I am not the people person I thought I was, I find comfort in my own time. And being with people, big crowds of people all the time is exhausting. So no, not a people person these days. Perhaps that is just a for now thing tho.

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    • “trust doesnt mean love & love doesnt mean trust” Yes. Love is another thing altogether, so complex and confusing… That is certainly bittersweet – to have known your friend for so long and you love him, but you can’t share your entire life with him and/or you can’t take his word. I feel for you.

      Hoping you find your way, big sis. Trust takes a lot of energy, and so does being around people. We have to learn to trust ourselves and who we are before having faith in others. Huggles to you xoxo

      Like

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