society

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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Understanding Turkey: Lack of interpersonal trust

It was one of those normal evenings during my last months in Turkey. I was laying on the couch after dinner, surfing the internet. I was basically just cruising around, went to some website here, looked up some statistics there, went back to Google, found something, went back, clicked on a link again. And then, suddenly, I was looking at some numbers that made all my scattered understanding of Turkey come together…. What was before my eyes, explained it all. There it was, in black and white… This graph:

Interpersonal trust - OECD - percentage of people expressing high level of trust in others

The graph shows the percentage of people in the OECD countries expressing high level of trust in others. As you see, Turkey is at the bottom of the list. Only 24 percent of the Turkish people in the survey highly trusted their fellow citizens. Compare that to the Scandinavian countries, where almost everyone seem to trust one and other.

But this is only the OECD countries, I thought… what about the rest of the world?

As I continued to search the internet for other surveys relating to interpersonal trust, I found this world map, and by then I was sure…

Interpersonal trust World map

…Turkey has a huge problem with trust,  may it or may it not be for good reasons. Even compared to other places in the entire world, Turkey sticks out as a country in which people’s trust of each other is surprisingly low.  To me, it does not only explain something about peculiarities in it’s society, but it also predicts future problems, not the least relating to economic development.

Lack of interpersonal trust and its consequences

In one way you can say that the foundation of any society is built on trust. To be able to do business with someone, you need to be able to trust that person. The whole capitalistic system in terms of specialization rather then self-sufficieny, is based on trust between individuals. So, what happens in a society with low interpersonal trust?

Well, you can see all the signs in Turkey…

  • Where does the extreme social culture come from? – a way to be sure where you have other people?
  • The love for the family – are they maybe the only one you can trust?
  • A tendency for jealousy – everywhere there is threats to both love and friendships

And in business and politics?

  • Shortsightedness – While you’re in power grab as much you can, feed only yourself
  • Widespread nepotism and corruption – same as above
  • Why is Erdogan personally involved in everything? – he doesn’t trust anyone else

And of course, the lack of trust easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The situation becomes much like the prisoners dilemma, a vicious cycle hard to break free from, like this:

I know that you will cheat me, so I better cheat you first!

For Turkey to become an advanced economy, lack of trust is not a good thing. The interpersonal trust issue will increasingly become a hinder for economic growth and development. Where there is no trust, the transaction costs are high and a nepotistic society quite effectively makes sure that niether the best individual nor the most suiting company gets the job or the contract.

And maybe not even the love within the family isn’t that great after all? There is a Turkish expression saying, Babana bile güvenme! 

It translates: Don’t even trust your father!

 

 

Part 2: Three gentlemen

Three gentlemen Turkey

One day before the elections I went to a classic Turkish fish restaurant together with some friends. The restaurant was located in one of the more wealthy parts of Istanbul. This is an area, where the main opposition party, CHP, always gets a very high percentage of the votes and where people on average aim for a westernised lifestyle.

But this night I would learn, that the political life still had its own distinguished features, specific to Turkish culture.

After ordering a bottle of Rakı – the national drink before AKP replaced it with the non-alcoholic Ayran – and after the first mezes had arrived to the table, I spotted three older men sitting a bit away from us in a corner. They were well-dressed, in suits, and with friendly faces. As our eyes meet, I raised my glass towards them and they saluted back.

“Where are you from? Are you from Germany?” one of the men said in broken English as I passed their table returning from the restroom a bit later.

I answered them and we started to chat. Soon they asked me to sit down with them.

“What do you think about the food? Delicious, isn’t it?” one of the men said.
“Excellent, It was very good. We are waiting for the main course. Do you know the owner?”
“Know the owner!” he exclaimed. “He is the little brother of my childhood friend. We go here all the time. We grew up not far from here.”

As the discussion unavoidably entered in to the area of politics, it turned out that one of the men, was senior local politician, working for the main opposition party, CHP. Glad to make his acquaintance we continued to talk, and after discussing the economic development of Istanbul, my mouth slipped – it must have been the Rakı – and I told them about a idea for a business based in Istanbul.

The politician immediately turned rather serious.

“We should talk” he the said. “We should exchange numbers and meet!”

I looked at the other men and they nodded.

“You should meet him, he can make anything happen” one of them said.

“Everything is possible.” the politician continued. “You can talk to me, and we can make a deal!”

He was saying all this in the way any old and powerful man in Turkey would do. But since he was a politician, there was no doubt about the meaning of his words.

From many friends I knew and heard stories about how knowing the right people, especially within politics and municipality, could mean the difference between bankruptcy and success. If someone within the system saw that your business was successful, they often wanted a cut. They would try to get it by pointing out problems of different kinds, mostly technicalities that at first seemed ridiculous. However, such a situation could quickly grow into a nightmare. Licenses could be withdrawn, deliveries could stop, police could come visit. The solution was always compensative one, meaning money under the table.

What the politician now offered me, was a shortcut. But of course it would not be a free one.

And I came to think: Even though he represented the opposition party, there was, in essence, little difference between him and e.g. Erdogan. They where of the same generation and in terms of attitude to corruption, they were soul mates.

No wonder why the voters did not punish Erdogan for being corrupt!

Part 1: The Taxi Drivers

Taxi in Istanbul

The taxi drivers

A couple of nights before the local election I was out walking. Outside one of the night clubs in the central historical part of Istanbul, where you will find many of the liberal Gezi youngsters partying and drinking, stood a group of taxi drivers, with their yellow cars, waiting for the night club guests to be in need of their services. I could tell, somehow, from the way they looked towards the entrance, that they weren’t happy with what they saw.

“How is business going?” I asked them.

Surprised that I spoke to them in Turkish, they asked where I came from, and after I answered we continued to talk about other things. I suggested that spring had come to Istanbul, they said it had been a warm winter.

After a while I cleared my throat.

“What are you going to vote for in the elections?”

A slightly noticeable discomfort spread among them, they started to look at each other, some turned aside and laughed nervously.

“I am going to vote for AKP” one of the short men, said, “I am voting for Tayyip!”, he continued in a louder voice, looking to the other men for assurance.

“Have you always?”

“Of course!” he exclaimed, like it was the most ignorant question on earth. “There is no one else than Tayyip Erdogan!”

The other men repeated “Tayyip Erdogan” in some sort of mumbly choir and laughed.

“So, You also vote for the AKP?”

“Of course” they all said.

A short moment of silence occurred.

“So, what do you think about the corruption allegations? Are they real?”

The men’s discomfort now became more evident than before, and one of them was just about to open his mouth, when a tall and rather well dressed man suddenly came in front of me.

“We don’t talk about this! AKP is going to win, we gonna vote for them, and Fetullah Gülen will be gone. Thats it!” he said in an aggressive manner.

I took a step back, and if the man had had a more rough look, I would have escaped the scene. But instead I stood silent observing how he seemed to spread fear among the men. He was clearly above them in the pecking order.

“We gonna win on sunday!” he continued now facing the men. “AKP will win! We going to vote! And after that Turkey will continue as usual!”

Then he hastily went away after someone had called on him from another group of taxis a bit away. All of us watched his back in silence as it faded into the night.

“Who was that?” I asked after a while.

“It is our boss!” the short man said. He organizes our taxis, gives us work…”
“From the municipality?” I said.

The short man smiled insecurely.

“Maybe!”

To me, this was a perfect illustration of how freedom of thought and expression in Turkey is a luxury that only can be afforded by the very few who are economically independent. One of the main reasons for AKP’s success is that they have managed to activate the grass roots of the society and make politics out of almost everything in their everyday life. In a society that is almost to an absolute extent already built upon friends, family, and social network, this has become a very efficient way to maintain support and silent opposition among the poor conservative, working people, who is in an overwhelming majority in the country. Especially occupations that in some way is under the government and municipalities control, have quickly turned into professions where only people who agree with the AKP is allowed to enter. This is valid for the professions high up in the hierarchy down to the very bottom, where even workers, are expected to agree with everything the AKP stands for. If you do not agree, you will face problems, likely get fired.

I said goodbye, and the group of men was dispersed. The short man jumped in to his taxi, started the engine and drove slowly towards a waving group of youngsters at the night club’s entrance.