The Trust Gap: What happens when misunderstandings turn toxic?

Read time: 6 minutes

Trust is like a charging battery

Like a battery, our trust in a person can either gain or lose charge based on our experiences with that person. If I’ve had zero previous experience with a person, then that person’s trust battery should be at least 50% full. The phrase, “give people the benefit of the doubt” comes to mind. When a person does something to earn my trust, for example following through on our agreed-upon deadline, then their trust battery gains charge. Alternatively, if they do things to lower my trust in them, for example being dishonest or not following through on our agreed-upon deadline, then their trust battery may lose charge.  

Why do we jump to conclusions about trust?

If I meet someone new (no previous experience with them) and their trust battery seems to be automatically lower or higher than 50%, it is worth asking yourself why that is. We often bring assumptions into our interactions with people, assuming them to be more or less trustworthy, but what causes this increase or decrease in trust when we  have zero experience with a person?

Research tells us that we are less likely to trust things and people we do not understand. Sometimes this gap in understanding — and therefore trust — even turns into fear and rejection. This is a classic human pattern — let’s call it the Trust Gap pattern. 

Trust Gap example: A case of miscommunication turning into violence

You may have heard about the events in Los Angeles in 1992 commonly referred to as the L.A. Riots. The L.A. Riots refer to a significant outbreak of violence, looting, and arson in the Los Angeles area that ignited in response to acts of violence toward the African American community in the area, namely the savage beating of Rodney King and the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins. Often untold, however, is the story of mistrust that slowly kindled this fiery outbreak of violence. 

Gaps in trust formed in large part due to a conflict of communication styles between these two groups.

The formation of the Trust Gap

In the lead-up to the L.A. Riots, there had been a growing level of mistrust between two cultural groups around the city of Los Angeles: the Korean immigrants who owned and managed stores in the area, and the predominantly African American customers who frequented these businesses. According to researchers — specifically linguists — who studied the cross-cultural context here, the gap in trust formed in large part due to a conflict of communication styles between these two groups. 

The Korean store owners and employees practiced an in-store communication style that placed a high value on personal boundaries and privacy, and therefore tended to keep any personal information out of in-store interactions. To these shop owners, this was considered respectful communication behaviour with their customers. 

On the other hand, researchers noted that the customers who frequented these stores —  predominately African American customers — valued familiarity in their in-store communication, and therefore tended to ask questions and share information about their personal lives with the employees and shop owners. To the customers, this was considered respectful communication behaviour with the shop owners. 

Unfortunately, due to this misunderstanding of what was actually considered respectful communication, a trust gap began to form between the two groups.

The misunderstanding

When the Korean shop owners kept interpersonal communication limited, taking the strictly-business approach to their interactions with customers, the African American customers often perceived this behavior as cold and disrespectful. When the African American customers would ask questions and share information about their lives with the employees at the stores, the Korean shop owners often perceived this behaviour as intrusive and disrespectful. 

When the Korean shop owners kept interpersonal communication limited, taking the strictly-business approach to their interactions with customers, the African American customers often perceived this behavior as cold and disrespectful.

A gap formed, in other words, between the two groups’ understandings of each other’s intentions, which led to a gap in trust between the groups. This trust gap intensified over time and created a dangerous context that exacerbated the already violent L.A. Riots. 

Bridging the Trust Gap

Communicative differences are only one way that trust gaps form. A trust gap can form as a result of any misunderstanding, which is why Breakview Training offers models and practices for bridging the trust gap.

Reflection Questions

How could a trust gap interfere with your team’s productivity and well-being? 

What kinds of misunderstandings could lead to a gap in trust between your people?

What can you do to prevent a trust gap from forming?

Your Next Steps

Awareness: Uncovering your trust gap

Start a conversation with the people on your team. You can start by practicing with a friend or family member.

Conversation starters:

What steps can I take to ensure that my communication style helps me be seen as trustworthy?

When it comes to handling issues, what adjustments can I make to help us disagree without being disagreeable?

Prevention: Digging deeper

Learn about the warning signs and skills for recognizing and extinguishing misunderstandings within your own context.

Learn more about our Online Courses and Webinars today by contacting us directly at info@breakviewtraining.com or by calling our toll free number: 866.377.0165.