Once, I went with a friend to help pick up a passport from a guy who needed a visa. The guy was super nervous handing his passport and money to a stranger, and being told that he’ll get a call in a week.
No wonder he was nervous–I felt the same the first time I had to do it but after a while I realized that that is just how they choose to do things in some parts of the world. An act like that, with every option to breach the trust he gave can build trust in a friendship quickly and effectively.
Trust in friendship is everything. It is the definition that distinguishes whether we are friends or just acquaintances.
“Friendship, a state of enduring affection, esteem, intimacy, and trust between two people.” – Britannica
In fact, it is mutual trust that moves us from being strangers to acquaintances and later friends. Think about it the other way around: what is a friendship without trust?
Two people who aren’t strangers but not friends either. They know each other but don’t trust the other to help when it matters. Life is unnecessarily challenging without trust because we are constantly fighting an uphill battle.
Normally, things in life snowball via our friends and network over time, and we get opportunities whether to meet other cool people or career opportunities because of the existing trust we’ve built with others. When there’s no trust we constantly have to meet new people and hope they give us a chance–it’s like being stuck on a treadmill or under a glass ceiling that we can’t seem to breakthrough.
This is obvious to most of us one way or the other, so we have to wonder why some people are not trustworthy when the benefits clearly outweigh the cons in the long term. Typically they grew up in a society that values short term gains and lacks trust (most of the world unfortunately) or was by accident taught a worldview without trust. For example, learning that short term gains like money are more important than long term gains like trust.
It could also be that they simply don’t understand or realize that they are breaching trust when doing something. The simplest example that we all know is when someone bails on a plan at the last minute and we were almost expecting it because they’ve done it a million times before. They haven’t given us a reason to trust that they will show up as agreed.
Trust exists in everything, not just in friendship. We trust that the supermarket will accept our money made out of paper when we go to buy stuff, and we trust the bank not to take it when our salary arrives.
One of the toughest examples is being seriously sick but not being able to go to a doctor we trust because we’ve continuously been shown that they chose a false diagnosis that earned them more money but wasn’t what we really needed. I’m not hating on doctors as I’ve only had good experiences but it’s the reality for many people around the world.
That’s why we might argue that trust is among the most important things in the world whether in friendship or elsewhere. Many expats moving to developing countries for work, mention that the lack of trust they are used to in their home society is gone and it’s among the most challenging things to get used to.
Why bother with trust in friendships?
Imagine two people, both frequently making promises but one rarely follows through and the other who always does. Who would you trust in an emergency when your car breaks down? Or if you are the boss of a team, who will you trust to promote, get things done and make you look good? Who will you trust not to make you look bad if you introduce them to an important friend or business contact?
Trust in friendships has these hidden benefits that we experience all the time, to a point where we don’t even realize it until it’s gone. In our career a trusted friend can help fast-track a promotion, land that amazing client or our boss might trust us with added responsibility and a raise – without learning any new hard skills.
In our network, trust allows us to get introductions to meeting awesome high caliber people. It’s our reputation and it’s the secret ingredient that makes important deals happen, and why one person is often chosen over another with a similar skillset–they trust that we’ll come through for them.
For example, I landed an awesome job in part because my friend recommended me, unbeknownst to me at the time, and some of that trust spilled over between his and my friendship to his and that other person’s friendship.
How to build trust in friendships and the one thing that matters if we want to be trustworthy
Trust in friendship is built over the long term and there are a few different things that we can do to be trustworthy over time.
The one thing I’ve found to matter above all else is as simple as doing what we say we are going to do. In a world where it is so easy to say things and not follow through, those that do stand out like a sore thumb. If we don’t do it, it doesn’t feel any different at first.
It is only when we want to do something later on and it becomes difficult or impossible for mysterious reasons that we feel the result. And oftentimes, we don’t even realize that it happened because of a lack of trust as most people don’t want to be impolite, cause a conflict and so we don’t say that we don’t trust them.
A classic example is when we invite someone out and they cancel at the last minute. If it happens once, it doesn’t matter but after several times we eventually stop inviting them and they might wonder why. This cycle works across short term meetups, jobs and other long term engagements across every aspect of our lives.
Action step: Doing what we say we are going to do can feel challenging until it becomes a habit. If this is something you are interested in changing or simply want to keep tabs on how trustworthy you feel, fire up a note on your phone and write it down every time you say you are going to do something for seven days. Then at the end of the week, cross off how many of the things you actually did.
This can be surprisingly challenging because we don’t want to let others down when they ask, yet we might not be able to help them and don’t feel equipped to tell them. So we say yes and hope they forget it.
Other areas of that same point is to be reliable and dependable meaning that we don’t let a potential friend down if they are expecting something from us that we’ve agreed to. The key point here is that it is something we’ve agreed to. Some people are toxic and expect things from others that are unreasonable and that they haven’t agreed to. It is impossible to change those people and the only thing we can really do is set boundaries or stop seeing them.
Especially, when we are abroad and building a new friend circle, the challenge is that we won’t know if they turn out to be that way down the road. It makes the most sense to default to doing things that build trust and let things unfold since people tend to move in and out of our lives over time anyway.
Examples of red flags to avoid are
- Do they often cancel at the last minute?
- Are they taking advantage of your generosity? (both monetary and emotional listening/encouragement)
- Are you emotionally exhausted after hanging out with them? (Not the way introverts get tired but rather because of things like drama and complaining)
A part of building trust in a friendship is not to badmouth others behind their back and share confidential secrets that weren’t meant for others. We might feel that if they do it with us about someone else, they might do it about us to someone else when we are not there, too.
Another is to not only contact them when we need something. It feels slimy and people can sense it in advance. If we do that, we quickly become the person that only reaches out when we have something emotional we need to get off our chest and need a listening ear or want a favor. We become someone to avoid. Instead, it works better to focus primarily on the other person and avoid those that take advantage of it. It’s an intricate balance.
No matter what, it takes time to build trust and become friends. We can in part hack it by going through critical situations together where there is an opportunity to prove trust. Team building is a classic example as we get to feel trust in small portions with our colleagues and the idea is that it will develop like a seed.
Living abroad we tend to have more options to do this as we are exploring our new home and can go on trips. Trying extreme sports for the first time together tends to be good for this as we are able to bond over the crazy experience after. I imagine that is why soldiers who have been through war together seem to have such a special bond.
To get the ball started we can for example show others that we think they are trustworthy by telling them about our dreams and fears, a topic that is usually intimate and not something we share with strangers. That can make them feel that we are trustworthy because we think that they are. The trick is to avoid sharing it with strangers as we’ll come across as someone who overshares and doesn’t understand social boundaries. Instead, we can use it to deepen an existing relationship with someone who we know a little.
If you are interested in further reading, I can recommend the book The Code of Trust about a former FBI agent. He shares interesting stories on how the American intelligence service builds trust to get information with sources and his framework for how we can repeat his success.
One of the eye-opening things I’ve realized about trust is that it is a skill we can learn. We can always become more trustworthy and instill trust in others, even if we feel as if we’ve broken promises in the past. All it takes is the willingness to practice.
- Trust in friendship is everything and the very core of a friendship
- The most important thing to build trust is to do what we say we are going to do
- It takes time to build trust but we can speed it up by going through challenging situations together