The trust bond

To err is human, and it actually makes you seem more trustworthy

By Barbara Pierce

Trust is a tricky thing. When you’ve got someone’s trust, it’s great: You can sell them more stuff, get more favors, ask for more, and generally benefit a great deal. But when someone doesn’t trust you, forget about it, you’re in big trouble.

But, if you’re a trustworthy person, you’re probably not trustworthy just because you can sell people more stuff or get more favors.

Getting someone’s trust means you’ll get hired for that job you really want, that hot girl you’re meeting tomorrow night will really like you, and you’ll make friends easily. Getting the trust of others smoothes the path for much in life and helps you accomplish what you want.

The No. 1 quality that makes a good leader is trustworthiness, experts say.

The question “Can I trust you?” is always in the back of our minds whenever we interact with other people, especially when we meet for the first time, though we usually aren’t aware that we’re asking ourselves this.

And I’m learning that weird, awkward things may help people see you as trustworthy. Research shows that showing your awkward side, your imperfections, can be a key to being considered trustworthy.

— Spill on yourself: Yes, that’s right, spill on yourself. As humans, we’re all flawed. And while many of us are quick to admit that to ourselves, we do everything to hide it from others. However, decades of research show that perfectionism can work against us: to really make someone comfortable with you quickly, spill coffee on yourself.

In one famous study, participants listened to recordings of students interviewing for a Quiz Bowl team. In two of the recordings, the student sounds highly qualified, and in the other two, he does not. One candidate from each group is also heard saying, “Oh my goodness, I’ve spilled coffee all over myself!” As you might expect, the qualified student was judged more favorably than the unqualified student, but the qualified student who spilled coffee on himself was the unanimous favorite.

The clumsy candidate who showed his human side appeared easier to empathize with. A superior person may be viewed as superhuman and, therefore, distant; a blunder tends to humanize him and increases his attractiveness.

Be a doofus

Yes, people like a person who is a bit of a doofus. I lead workshops and people seem to like me and give me high ratings. I always thought it was because I was presenting information they were glad to have and presenting it in an interesting way.

But maybe they like me because I’m a bit of a doofus, someone who spills on herself and reveals other flaws.

— Swear (in moderation): A little profanity can build a lot of trust. It promotes bonding. I’m not sure why, but I do believe it can make you more likeable. In my workshops, I sometimes use mild profanity; people always laugh in a way that feels like they’re bonding with me.

As a rule of thumb, never swear at the person you’re trying to build a bond with. Instead, swear about some mutual inconvenience.

— Apologize: Say something like “Sorry for the traffic.” People are quicker to trust people who start a conversation by apologizing for something they weren’t responsible for. They rated a hypothetical Craigslist seller as more trustworthy when the person apologized for the rain rather than made a neutral comment about it or didn’t mention it at all.

You might think mistakes will kill your credibility, but accepting your shortcomings actually builds trust by showing that you’re human. People who are imperfect are more attractive to us. We like them more than people who seem too perfect.

— Pay attention: Make eye contact, and hold it — both when you’re speaking and listening.

Put your phone down, maybe even out of sight. If you keep glancing at your phone, or scanning the room, you won’t gain the trust of the person with whom you’re speaking. Listen with your eyes.

Nod from time to time to show you understand what’s being said to you, and if you don’t understand, ask. Smile, especially when they do.  Above all else, really focus on what’s being said to you — everyone needs to feel that they have been heard.

— Be warned: There is such a thing as too much eye contact. About four seconds of uninterrupted eye contact is about as long as the average person can take before feeling awkward. If you’re the speaker, glance off every few seconds. The listener can follow.

— Uncross your arms and legs: Crossed arms or legs close you off. You’ve positioned your body in a way that is a defense mechanism that blocks any basis for building trust.

— Touch (appropriately): Lightly touching someone communicates empathy.

• Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at