With the big news that vaccinated Americans can go maskless in most situations, I’ve noticed a trend: deep societal distrust. People in my social circles (who are mostly vaccinated, or will be soon) are wringing their hands and raising alarms that some Americans will remove their masks even if they’re not vaccinated. The new CDC policy is predicated on trusting both the efficacy of the vaccines (which is well-founded) and the “honor system” approach to unmasking only when vaccinated. The challenge is that the Venn diagram overlap of “anti-vaxxers” and “anti-maskers” is, one imagines, very nearly a solid circle. But there’s a bigger, underlying problem: We Americans don’t trust each other.
It’s staggering to reflect upon what a huge blow American social trust has taken over the last year. Of course, there’s the pandemic: When called upon to change our behavior to protect ourselves and our most vulnerable neighbors, many Americans simply refused — throwing temper tantrums in supermarkets and politicizing public health guidance as a matter of “personal freedom.” And even some people who’ve been saying “Trust the science!” for all this time are now, suddenly…not trusting the science.
But there have been many other reminders, too, of how little Americans trust each other. The murder of George Floyd, and so many others, demonstrated why Black Americans have very good reason not to trust the police (or, really, society at large). And on January 6, a mob of furious insurrectionists who didn’t trust the results of a legitimate election stormed the US Capitol building.
All of this is not just to recap a grisly year in American history, but to illustrate how little trust Americans have for each other. (Not to mention, how little the rest of the world trusts the US.) And that’s very much at odds with the way much of Europe operates. In fact, Northern European countries have the highest social trust of anyone.
I’m not pretending to be a social scientist. But I am an avid traveler. And especially in Northern Europe, I see signs of social trust permeating everyday life, in a way that makes me jealous…if not tempted to move abroad.
Strolling the canals of Amsterdam, you find yourself peeking in big, open windows that face out to the street. It’s as if people have chosen to live their personal lives in public. That’s because they have: Dutch people sacrifice some degree of privacy for the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your neighbors are looking out for you. They want to be seen, because if their neighbor walks by one day and notices they’re not sitting at the table drinking their morning coffee, the neighbor will investigate and, if necessary, send for help. For the Dutch, spying on each other doesn’t breed paranoia. It provides comfort.
I have changed planes dozens of times at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. When you’re lying there on a hard bench in a jeg-lag stupor, you hear the same announcement again and again: “Immediate boarding, please. Delta flight 143 to Seattle. Please report to the gate. You are delaying the flight.” It’s telling how the Dutch try to motivate wayward passengers: Not with the consequences to yourself (that would be “You will miss your flight”) — but with the inconvenience you are causing others. Letting someone else down, to the Dutch, is the ultimate embarrassment. (To many Americans, it’s a point of pride.)
Walking through small-town Denmark, you may come across a strange sight: a baby stroller — with the baby inside! — just sitting there on the sidewalk. This seems shocking, until you realize that the stroller is parked at the window of a café, where Mom is catching up with friends while keeping an eye on her kiddo. This would never fly in most parts of the US; we’d call Child Protective Services without hesitation. But the Danes trust each other: Mom knows that nobody will snatch her dozing baby, and passersby know that she’s just a few steps away if needed. (And even if she weren’t, they’d step in to help.)
On a visit to Oslo, a Norwegian friend told me he’s very aware — and appreciative — of the trust he feels within his society. He is comforted that everyone looks out for each other, and that individual achievement doesn’t supersede a more widespread prosperity. Norwegians believe there’s always enough to go around.
He said that you also find this ethic in Scandinavian emigre communities in North America. A prime example is the “Minnesota slice” phenomenon at an Upper Midwest potluck: Nobody wants to take the last slice of pie, so instead, they keep cutting it in half, then in half again, carving off infinitesimally smaller slivers. At some point, once a wedge can’t be divided any further, what’s left sits on a plate until the table is cleared. The Minnesota slice is a tangible symbol of “just in case you need it, my friend…”
Anecdotally, it seems to me that many Americans are pretty depressed right now, even in spite of our euphoria that the pandemic appears to be in its final stages. We’re wiped out from the false starts and the hurry-up/wait that has characterized life for the last 14 months. We’re exhausted from a year-plus of quarantine, we’ve grown accustomed to isolation, and we’re anxious about changing our entire lifestyle yet again. I believe this transition is made harder because we’ve lost any faith we once had in our fellow Americans. Scary times are scarier when you don’t feel like the person next to you has your back.
In fact, scientists have found that social trust is correlated with happiness (repeatedly, including in the United States). It’s also correlated with economic development (again, repeatedly). In the USA, we prize individuality. We tell ourselves that the only way to be happy is to be a free agent, to follow our own compass. This has only increased over the last year. But the research tells a different story; it suggests that “maximum personal freedom” is a recipe for existential misery.
I don’t know how we begin to re-establish social trust in the United States. Maybe it’s a lost cause. (Though I imagine a first step would be to embrace objective reality in the form of, let’s say, election results, police body-cam footage, and scientific inquiry — even when these don’t support our deeply held beliefs.) But it’s clear that trusting each other is the only viable path forward, if we hope to emerge from COVID stronger and happier than before.
I am aware this is naively optimistic, but I like to dream that somehow, this will change with the post-pandemic “new normal” in America. Perhaps we’ll realize that we’ve hit rock bottom and will now turn toward a more Northern European model of trusting our neighbors, earning their trust in return, and remembering that we’re all in this together. After all, it’s right there in our national motto: “Out of many, one.” Somewhere along the way we clung to only the first part and jettisoned the last.
Either way…I’ll save a slice of pie for you. Just in case.