Deciding to trust a perfect stranger


Let’s assume we haven’t met. If I wanted to raise the probability that you’d like me—that you’d instinctively decide to trust me—I would follow a piece of advice I learned from the researchers at the University of Colorado. (This would require a fairly cunning plan.) Somehow or another, I’d arrange for you to be holding a hot beverage—coffee, hot chocolate, tea, it doesn’t matter, as long as the cup feels warm in your hands—the exact moment I walk up to introduce myself. That’s because the moment you cup your hands around something warm, you set a chain of psychological reactions into gear. In the study I alluded to above, a "confederate” met participants in a ground-floor lobby. She told the participants they’d be taking an escalator to a fourth floor lab.  “The confederate casually asked participants if they could hold [her] coffee cup for a second"—the rogue—“while she recorded their name and the time of their participation." Then, once they arrived on the fourth floor, each participant was handed a description of a fictional character. The ostensible purpose of the study was to see what the participants thought of these fictional characters. Were they trustworthy? What were their first impressions of the characters’ personalities?

The results of the study, published in 2008, indicate that we judge strangers 11 percent more warmly when holding hot coffee than we do when holding iced coffee. Basically, warm cup equals warm bath equals mother equals the safest memories we have. Included in the idea of “warmth” is “a constellation of traits related to perceived favorability of the other person's intentions toward us, including friendliness, helpfulness, and trustworthiness," the study revealed.

These researchers also talked about "non-foes,” a word that seems particularly applicable to the daily situations faced by New Yorkers. A non-foe is a stranger whose presence you don’t mind, who you’ve subconsciously decided to trust a little bit. You make these decisions to trust or distrust strangers all the time: about the people ordering paninis in line ahead of you, about the girlfriend of your classmate in Scientific Reasoning, who’s in the city for the week, or even about the authors of the memoir you’re reading.

Most conversations we have about trusting strangers are about the worst-case scenario. Political philosophers have long maintained that trust and cooperation are beneficial for society as a whole, but that a trusting nature does leave an individual vulnerable to exploitation.

What else affects our trust in strangers? In New York, we have a way of establishing trust with strangers without exchanging a single word: “civil inattention,” the sociological term for “the process whereby strangers who are in close proximity demonstrate that they are aware of one another, without imposing on each other,” according to one dictionary.

When a stranger on the subway bends backwards so you can slip past him, he’s fulfilling the first requirement of civil inattention, which is to wordlessly acknowledge your presence. And when surrounding passengers push the two of you so close that you can feel his rib cage, you respect the second part of civil inattention by not asking him about the book he’s reading, not even making eye contact; in short, signaling that you don’t want a sustained interaction. Voila. For the purposes of this subway ride, you’ve treated each as thoughtfully as if you were honorary friends.

Although civil attention isn’t all that simple. The sociologist Anthony Giddens wrote that its rules demand “chronic attention to detail,” and gave this example: “the gaze [can] be neither too direct, nor too averted nor ‘defensively dramatic’; in both cases this might indicate to others the possibility that there is ‘something going on.” Funny how these rules become intuitive after you’ve lived in New York for any length of time.

Examining the rules we follow brings up the question of whether it all, just maybe, smacks of the ridiculous.

Not to a sociologist. Because the system of civil inattention accomplishes something incredibly difficult, something that social media campaigns and policy change often fail to do: establishing trust between perfect strangers. And trust is a key ingredient to preventing chaos. Trust prevents rioting when rush hour creates cattle-car conditions on the subway.

But still, isn’t there something a bit high school about avoiding eye contact? What about the lost art of forming relationships?

I remember one day when the 4 train was running as if it was edging around a steep cliff, stopping and starting and then stopping again with these mighty jerks. To this day I’ve never seen the MTA so off it’s game. Standing next to me was a man in a suit who’d gotten on at Wall Street. It was like we were in this thing together—we synchronized the moments we lost our balance and took great care not to step on each other’s feet. By the time I got off the subway, I had angled my copy of the New Yorker towards him so he could read along. This whole time we didn’t make eye contact once. Amazing.

Maybe the social rituals of the teenage world exist to accommodate insecurity and cruelty. But adults living in New York are trying to accommodate the myriad challenges of, well, living here. Like spending a lot of time being vacuum-sealed into small boxes with other people. It’s not a sign of lacking interpersonal skills, but a silent agreement that we need some privacy, even if it’s just an illusion. (By the way, this is definitively a New York thing. I’m told the Chicago subways are much chattier.)

What does all this have to do with the warm drinks I mentioned earlier? One takeaway from that study is that humans are fickle creatures whose feelings depend on the temperatures of their palms.

Another takeaway is that living in New York means being surrounded by a random selection of strangers at all times, and that these strangers can usually be trusted to respect your personal space, according to our agreed-upon ritual.