Interpersonal trust – Q & A

Since my article about interpersonal trust turned out to be both popular and controversial, I decided to give my answers to some common questions in this blog post.

Lets start with the most burning one of them all:

Turkey heart flag

You are a foreigner, so why do you write shit about Turks? (“Fuck off!”)

Well, this was happily only the response by a small minority of the commentators, but still, the question deserves an answer.

Firstly, the numbers representing trust in the Turkish society, were not made up by me. These were based on real answers from real people, consisting of a representative random selection of the different countries’ population. In that sense I was merely stating a fact. The numbers was not some “mumbo jumbo”, as one of the commenters said.

Secondly, I am an enormously big fan of Turkey, and love the people, the society and its culture. I love more or less everything about the country, except… well this trust issue. I experienced it very clearly while residing in the country, and saw first hand how it damaged peoples lives. But by pointing out this problem, and its negative consequences there was no ill-intention. The opposite. As I wrote in the previous blogpost on the issue, lack of trust easily becomes a vicious circle that is hard to break. But the first step if you want to break it, is to clearly identify it. Was it then wrong of me to write about it? Maybe it was a bit provocative, but once again, I had no ill-intention in doing so. I love Turkey! Why else would I write this blog to begin with?

I don’t agree that Turks trust no one!

This was one of the most common misconception in the critique against the article: That the low interpersonal trust-score for Turkey, meant that Turkish people trust no one. This not at all how the score should be interpreted.

Interpersonal trust is measured by asking a statistically representative selection of a population the following question: “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?”. The main indicator is then the percentage of people who reply “most people can be trusted”.

So, in case of Turkey, the result does not mean that Turkish people do not trust anyone. It just means that Turks are more reserved to people in general. How much they trust their family and friends are not specifically the subject of this question.

Bakkal defter note book

A Bakkal Defteri is a notebook in which debt to the shop owner is written down.

In Turkey we have something called Bakkal Defteri, isn’t that a sign of trust?

I think that the Bakkal Defteri-system, where credit is given to locals of a Mahalle by the owner of a local store, is especially interesting to discuss in the context of interpersonal trust. At first I admit that it might look like it is a system based on trust between individuals. But if you scrutinise it, I would rather argue that it is built on a strong social control. Why?

  • Credit is only given to people that the shop owner knows well and lives in the area
  • In a traditional Mahalle, everyone knows each and most people live in the same area for all their life = it is impossible to run away from your debt
  • If you still avoid paying, everyone will know about it = trouble ahead

There is also a very good reason why this system, is a necessity in Turkey to begin with: Salaries and payments are more erratic since unions are weak, and there is a need for a system that still puts food on the table for hardworking people (read about the workers on the third bridge here). The reason why some Bakkals give credit to begin with, is probably also because there are often many in one area, and competition between forces them to provide extra services to keep their customers.

So, even though there is some amount of trust involved in this system, I would rather argue that it is mainly built upon social control and necessity.

This is also my general impression of how it works in Turkey: Trust always seems to be accompanied by some sort of social control. This constitute a big difference towards the Northern European countries.

In Turkey people are more likely to talk to strangers than in Europe, isn’t that a sign that they trust people more?

Yes, Turkey has a very strong social culture. But is that really because people trust each other more to begin with? I would rather argue the social culture in Turkey, comes from the fact that the country lacks strong formal institutions, which means that everything from finding a job to getting justice in court or help if you get unemployed, all goes through your social network. The more friends you have, the more likely you are to live a secure and happy life.

This constitute again a big difference towards the Northern European countries, where formal institutions instead are strong.

The social culture can also be directly deduced from the lack of trust: If you don’t trust “people in general”, it means that you have strong incentives to turn “people in general” into friends. And how do you do that? Well, you start talking to them…

So, from my point of view, the act of talking and trying to make friends, isn’t necessarily a sign of trust to begin with.  It can rather be interpreted as a sign of the opposite.

Do you agree or disagree? Use the comment field below!

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10 comments

  1. Lack of strong formal institutions could be one of the reasons. If a few generations live in a country with the rule of law, not only people will know that any illegal or unethical behavior will be punished, they will internalize these rules, which will eventually increase their trust against others within that society. Whereas in a country like Turkey, which has badly written and poorly enforced laws, people know that they cannot trust others since offenders frequently get away with it. E.g. our governments.

  2. You sir, definetely got it right about depending formal institutions versus having the right social connections thing, I agree 100 percent,and I also think knowing the right people help you out in anywhere in the world(more or less) if you are in trouble with law enforcement,let’s say if you want to get a good job(may be not like in here again) or if you delayed your tax payments ect.What I mean is human factor is inevitable wherever you are but the problem here is in our country,it turned into a tradition or you may call it as an informal obligation.For instance if i got a position to hire people and there were open positions in X ministery.My relatives and friends most likely would expect me to use my position to create an advantage for any of them that would like to have that particular job.And if don’t nobody would think any good about me letting a fair hiring process happen as it should be.If I interfere and have them the get jobs,then they owe me a favor,someday i’ll call upon them to do a service for me(The Godfather,remember :D) Then a itching question comes to our mind:what if this is the way the things work out in the court rooms as well ? So we question the justice which people are supposed to trust most,otherwise nobody feel comfortable…
    Finally,don’t be suprised of the ones think you may have ill-intentions,becouse we have seen a lot of them.
    I like your website.Keep the good work and may God bless you..

  3. Interesting survey, and it rings true to me. I lived and worked in Turkey for five years. The woman below me in the apartment building tried to cheat me (out of 50 lira– her son caught her at it and returned the money to me), the landlord tried to cheat me (out of 800 lira for a repair he was obligated by law to perform), two out of the three employers I had there (both short term!) cheated me (1 lira an hour), a real estate agent cheated me (1,000 lira)– and then wanted me to come for a cup of coffee! As this survey makes clear, this wasn’t because I was a foreigner– in general, I’d say Turks are nicer to Westerners than they are… to each other. And the toll it takes on Turkish society is significant. It introduces friction into so much of business life, and for what? I’m sure it’s one reason why some American defense firms don’t want to do business with Turkey any more– too much hassle. Generally speaking, when an American company signs a contract, the negotiations are done and the company gets down to work. When a Turkish company signs a contract…. well, the negotiations continue. Short-sighted.

    1. I would like to see the solutions you came up with while trying to deal with this.

      Because people, like you mentioned, are most of the time looking to make a quick buck. Foreigners are sometimes treated better in some ways. But the ways to con money out of tourist has become the topic of youtube videos. Some of them so asinine, it’s not even funny.

    2. I am a Turk and I can totally relate to what you are saying. Turkish people are friendlier to foreigners than they are to themselves…. They are culturally Middle Eastern, but yet aspire to be Europeans when in reality they have not even come close to incorporating Western ideas of development and business. Its a shame that this is why Turks can never do successful business together in harmony ….:-( In Turkey, you often get different opinions out of each and every individual. Every talks like they are the only one who can save Turkey from its problems, but consensus is never reached in the end. Turks are so busy trying to make negotiations that serious work is never commenced!

  4. in a comment in the other article you write, as a response to a post:
    “But would credit be given to a stranger? that is what interpersonal trust is about… trust in a random fellow citizen”

    Are you out of your mind? Do you honestly think we’re supposed to completely trust any random person we meet? I live in france, and not even in france do we have this utopian trust you’re talking about, trying to foulmouth turkey for not practicing that utopian trust. Trust is earned, not given. I don’t know where you live but it seems to be in a utopian society, on a utopian planet, that only you has access to.

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