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Juan Narbona: "Mistrust in institutions weakens society".

Juan Narbona, professor of Digital Communication at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross is one of the authoritative voices in the field of the study of trust and credibility of institutions. 

Alfonso Riobó-July 13, 2021-Reading time: 5 minutes

Photo credit: Joshua Hoehne / Unsplash

More than 600 Church communicators recently participated in an online congress organized by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Rome) under the theme "Inspiring Trust". Juan Narbona, one of the organizers, explains in Omnes why trust is a relevant issue for organizations, in this interview of which we now publish the first part. The second part will be published on this website in a few days.

What do you understand by "trust" and can we speak of "trust" in the Church?

-As with other seemingly obvious concepts, trust is not easy to define, even though we all know what it is and experience it every day. I understand it as "a leap in the dark," a commitment based on the hope that the other party's future behavior will be consistent with the expectations generated.

Trust is present in the most ordinary operations of our lives: we drink coffee at the bar without doubting the waiter who serves it, we take a bus with the certainty that it will take us to our desired destination, we work hoping that our company will pay us at the end of the month... We all have an active and a passive role in this regard: we expect to be trusted and we learn to trust others. The Church itself bases its existence on trust - on faith - in God's promises; in turn, it demands trust from its faithful, even though it is often aware that it does not deserve it.

What effects does trust have on individuals or groups?

-Let's think about our own experience. When we are trusted, we feel valued and our willingness to collaborate increases, we are more creative and able to accept risks, because we are fully involved in what we are entrusted with. In addition, it speeds up our time, because we do not feel obliged to account for everything or to justify our decisions...

Juan Narbona

On the other hand, without the oil In the absence of trust, our commitment and relationships creak and slow down to a standstill. A tense work environment, a family where excessive explanations are demanded or a friendship in which every mistake is held accountable are situations in which we drown. Also in a Christian community or in the Church, mistrust of pastors or of pastors towards the faithful can greatly hinder the mission.

Why is it said that confidence is in crisis today?

-An Ipsos survey published at the end of 2020 clearly shows how much distrust of certain experts and institutions has grown. For example, in England - although the data is similar in other European countries - only 56 % of the population trusts priests, when in 1983 that figure was 85 %. Mistrust is even greater towards other professional profiles - such as politicians (15 %) or journalists (23 %) - but it is surprising that the average citizen trusts a stranger in the street (58 %) more than a priest. Good times, on the other hand, for doctors, nurses and engineers, professional categories that receive a lot of trust.

So, we wanted to ask ourselves: what has happened to some of these social authorities? Why do we no longer trust those we considered experts until now? What are the consequences for society? We have also observed that trust is learning to circulate in other ways: a few years ago we would have been incapable of giving our letter of credit online or staying in the house of a stranger we have contacted on the Internet, but today it is common practice. We trust strangers because there are security mechanisms that make it easier. Classic organizations need to analyze with interest these new channels through which trust flows.

What is the reason for the generalized deterioration of confidence?

-In recent years, a generalized climate of suspicion has been accentuated in society. We find it difficult to place ourselves in the hands of specialists who base their authority on historical, subjective or supernatural criteria.

The causes of this change are varied, but the main one is that some traditional institutions have disappointed society. The greatest damage has been caused by those that have lied to their publics. Lying does horrible damage: the Lehman Brothers scandals, the Volkswagen emissions, the confusing statistics of the Astrazeneca vaccine or the coverage of sexual abuse in the Church and other institutions that work with young people are some examples. The problem is that not only do we distrust a specific lying organization, but our suspicion extends to all organizations or professionals working in the same sector.

But there have always been lies...

-Indeed. As early as the sixth century, St. Gregory the Great advised that "if the truth is to cause scandal, it is better to allow scandal than to renounce the truth. Fifteen centuries later, we continue to experience that telling the truth has been, is and always will be a fragile and difficult challenge. Nietzsche wrote a sentence that reflects well the consequences of lying: "What bothers me is not that you have lied to me, but that from now on I will not be able to believe you...". In other words, lying is not only bad in itself, but it cancels our authority to communicate the truth. Lying to save an apparently greater good (the prestige of dioceses or the reputation of their pastors, for example) will always be a temptation, but we have learned that telling the truth is a good that bears fruit in the long run. On the other hand, those who ally themselves with lies must assume that others will always view them with doubt and suspicion.

Are there other reasons for this climate of suspicion?

-Yes, along with lies we could mention fear. The Internet has put into circulation much more information that makes us feel vulnerable. Think, for example, of the news about the Covid vaccines. So many contradictions, so many rumors, so many different voices... have exhausted our will to trust. We no longer know who is right and this generates a strong sense of fragility and helplessness. The same happens with political tension: the discourse is fast, aggressive, emotional, divisive... Politicians exhaust us and we lose enthusiasm for building something together.

In this era of global information, scandals and crises in various areas (immigration, domestic violence, job security...) have weakened our ability to put ourselves in the hands of others. We are afraid, and this is not good, because it weakens social ties, and a weaker society is a more fragile and manipulable society. That is why it is important to inspire confidence again in the institutions that provide the backbone of society and give it cohesion and strength.

How do you rebuild trust?

-Thinking that trust can be "built" is a common misconception. Trust cannot be cooking with a series of ingredients: a marketing campaign, some credible data, an honest-sounding apology... No: trust is not built, it is inspired, and the other party freely gives it to us or not. It is possible, on the other hand, to work to be worthy of that trust, that is, to strive to change oneself, to be better.

How, then, do we "deserve" trust?

-By demonstrating that three elements are possessed: integrity, benevolence and capacity, as already proposed by Aristotle. That is to say, we trust in the person who is consistent with what he says; in the one who shows with deeds that he desires my good; and in the one who is also competent in the field for which he claims trust.

Imagine, for example, that you are going to buy a car. The salesperson accurately describes the characteristics of the vehicle you are interested in and answers your questions correctly. He is capable: he demonstrates that he knows his job. In addition, he suggests that you wait a few days to take advantage of a discount and advises you not to buy a more expensive model that does not meet your needs. In this way, he shows that he sincerely wants to help you. If, in addition, he assures you that he himself owns the model you have chosen, he gains your complete confidence because his behavior is consistent with his discourse.

Each person and each organization can think about how it can improve each of these three elements in order to deserve the trust of others: consistency, otherness and empowerment.

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