Keeping the Faith: Why we choose to trust absolute strangers

Trust is about sharing nonsense with people. When you share important information, you are careful.

Updated: August 3, 2014 1:00:35 am

By: Nishant Shah

In Taiwan, they are called the Strawberry Generation — the young digital natives, born after the 1980s, who look pink and delicious, like strawberries, and just like strawberries, they crush under pressure really fast. This Strawberry Generation, which consists of young millennials, is basking in the aftermath of the Sunflower Revolution, a student-led protest against the indifference of their government towards their foreign and trade policies with China. The Sunflower Revolution has become one of the biggest political demonstrations in east Asia, where the students took over the legislative assembly in Taipei and continued to make their demands which were not only heard, but also led to corrective reforms in their political system.

It has been just over three months since this self-organised, volunteer-based group of concerned students became political superstars as they orchestrated a flash mob of more than 10,000 citizens in Taipei to come to their aid. People poured on to the streets to surround the legislative assembly, and protected those who had made it into their fortress from the attacks of the judiciary or police systems.

The crowds stayed for weeks, organising food, water, resources and political protests, through sophisticated use of social media. The “Friend of a Friend” phenomenon, which is generally noticed in how videos of cute cats and dancing babies go viral, became a way by which it was ensured that those who had put themselves at political risk were protected as they demanded for better governance ethics in their country.

Earlier this month, I was in Taiwan, in conversation with some of the folks who were a part of this movement that took everybody by surprise. Largely in their early to mid-20s, studying in different universities in Taipei, and dressed in the standard street-market ensemble that marks fashion in Taiwan, the bunch of young politicos sat with me in a café that is so chic that you have to brew your own tea there. Among many things, we talked about trust. About how they understand trust, especially because they insisted that trust is not about sharing information, but about withholding it.

I was a little mystified about what it means to trust somebody you don’t know. Sure, we trust strangers all the time — which is why we have the courage to step out of the house because we trust that the throngs of strangers that surround us are not just going to hurt us. But the bunch of people said that the flash mobs that supported them were not people who knew everything, but people who trusted them because they shared a dream. Their social media strategy was not to over-share and document in minute detail, but instead, to share ideas, impressions, thoughts and feelings. To reveal information when questions were asked, but otherwise exercising reticence.

Used to the online spaces of social networking, for them, trust does not reside in sharing of information or getting to know somebody deeply and truly. Trust, as one of them pointed out, sipping on her coffee-flavoured oolong tea, is about sharing nonsense with people. When you share important information, you are careful. You think twice. You filter. But when you are on Facebook or Line (the mobile social network most popular in Taiwan), you say all kinds of strange things. And you know that no matter what you say, the others in the networks will watch your back. Just like, one of them pointed out, you share all your political thoughts with strangers on the Web. You don’t even know who they are, she paused. But I know the person I trust the most is the one I don’t have to share anything with.

“Like the other day,” she narrated, “I was really sad because I had just broken up with my boyfriend. I called my friend at three in the morning. She drove for 30 minutes to come to me. And when she came, and asked me what’s up, I was still so filled with pain I didn’t want to talk about it. So I said, ‘I can’t tell’. And she just hugged me, and we stayed silent. She didn’t need to know. All she needed to know was that I am in pain. And that is trust.”

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