Posted by: yannaungoak | September 10, 2009

A Day on the Job and Questions about Trust

[Okay, this post is waaaay overdue, should have been finished last week when I was still in Yangon. My apologies…]

David Brooks is my favorite New York Times columnist, hands down. I love his columns, I listen to him every week on the Newshour, and I loved his book On Paradise Drive, it’s one of the most entertaining and insightful books on American society that I’ve read. I was just reading his column from last week and I thought it was especially relevant to stuff we were talking and thinking about yesterday at a meeting.

The basic question is this: How can we ever assume that we can trust anybody? This question then naturally leads to another: If we can’t make that assumption, how can be fashion any kind of organization, government or society that doesn’t simply just fall apart?

And now we will go off on a long winded detour before going back to the topic at hand…

For the last week, I’ve been getting to know more about the company, what kinds of things they do here, what’s profitable and what’s not, what kinds of things we were going to do in the future, and what kind of role I’m supposed to play in all this. It’s always nice talking about those kinds of big picture things, and I’ve always been a big picture kind of person. And of course it doesn’t hurt that the conversations usually occur over lunch at a nice restaurant somewhere in town. Bosscousin’s definitely got taste when it comes to spending his money on food and drink.

So yesterday at lunch, I was talking with bosscousin and some of the people in charge of wholesale operations for Myanmar, and the point they kept making over and over to me was how in this country, you can never do things “the right way”. It’s all about flexibility here, you have to be a cross between a monkey and an octopus, leaping from branch to branch with all eight of your limbs. Up to now, that’s basically how bosscousin’s been able to survive. It’s the classic case of grabbing what Schumpeter calls entrepreneurial profits, exploiting temporary positions of market power. Whether by importing a brand new product, breaking into a new market, or getting favorable “rents” through connections. If you imagine a spectrum with the “pure entrepreneur” on one end and the “pure manager” on the other, bosscousin probably fits into the former extreme.

To me, that kind of chaos is unsettling. I guess it has to do with how I grew up. Even though I grew up mostly in Myanmar, I was never attuned to the dog-eat-dog atmosphere. My parents were civil servants, who spent their lives trying to get by honestly on their salaries until they could no longer stand the dog-eat-dog atmosphere themselves and decided to emigrate to Singapore. I’ve always grown up thinking I should trust people, not to rely on others, and generally not get entangled in the web of favor asking and granting that is exemplified in Burmese society.

But childhood morality lessons are rules of thumb at best. And at worst they can be dangerously narrow minded and unreasonable. The kind of things that create fodder for demagogues. I have given up on morality a long time ago. The only important question is: what kinds of values and mindsets can actually catalyze progress?

There are two issues at hand here, relating to the two questions I raised above. First, how do you assume that you can trust anybody? In my country, you simply don’t. It’s amazing how much people don’t trust others. The first thing you assume when your employee calls in sick is that he’s made an arrangement with the doctor to issue a fake medical certificate. When students sit for their exams, teachers just assume everyone will cheat to a certain extant and plan accordingly.

It’s all too easy to bash my own culture though. All too easy to lament the sorry state of the peoples’ mindsets in my homeland, implicitly giving myself points for not being like “them”. It’s the easy way out. I don’t think this is a simple issue of the culture being messed up though. I don’t think this mentality only applies to poor countries with weak legal systems either. I think even in a country like the US, that’s the general mentality, even though certain areas, like Middlebury, VT, where I went to school, people do trust each other to a very high extant.

But why? Why do people trust each other in my small upper-middle class college town? I don’t think Americans are culturally predisposed to trust each other, any more than our idyllic peaceful Burmese Buddhist culture is.

I think it has to do with self selection on one hand and neighborhood effects on another. First of all, people move to quiet college towns because they want to live near decent people. Second, once you’re actually there, you are induced, through your neighbors, peers and colleges, to act just like them, leaving your street smarts at the door and acting like you’ve reached the halfway house on the way to paradise.

So, the trick to setting up a society where people trust each other is to already have a place where people trust each other that you can move to. Classic catch-22. But I think its true. In any society, there will be a range of cultural mentalities, from the most ruthless social circles to the the peaceful idyllic ones. The question is how to foster, nurture and protect the latter. That’s a multifaceted question that must be tackled on so many different layers, I don’t think any philosopher, social scientist or statesman has pinned down the magic formula.

But I do know this: simplification is the enemy, and I hope to always be a voice that can catalyze the debate in combating it.



  1. question: in burma or a “non-trusting” society… would you pay for your food before you eat in a restaurant or after you eat? and I don’t mean uber fancy, but just a general average one.

    My point being merely, that this situation is a basic form of trust in a society.

  2. Hmm… I’ve never eaten at a place in Myanmar where we pay before we eat.

    I think in this situation you don’t need as much “trust” per se, because any deviation from the protocal can be readily punished. I mean you’d actually have to sneak out of the shop or run away to actually get away with not paying for your food.

    Whereas say if you’re buying something with credit, or buying a product that you can’t tell the quality of just by looking (like a watch), you’re waaaay more likely to get cheated, and there’s no way anybody trusts anybody in that kind of a situation.

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