The Architecture of Trust
A quick glance at today’s hyperventilated political climate delivers an unmistakable message: We don’t know how to talk with each other anymore. Author Michael Erard, a linguistics expert, searches for (and finds) ways to revive the craft of conversation, so that Americans of different beliefs can believe in each other again.
By MICHAEL ERARD
Editor’s Note: This story, which first appeared in our Spring 2017 issue, is being re-published in updated form to introduce our Winter 2021 issue on “America’s Black Artisans and Innovators.” While this article doesn’t focus on artisans, it does lay out some promising ways that new bridges could be built between any race or class. From there, greater civic creativity might follow.
It is tempting to see the political strife marking America these days as unprecedented, but history shows this country riven by conflict between regions, classes, races, and ideologies for centuries. One might even say that the anger and divides of the current moment are an outgrowth of what’s come before.
Meanwhile, antidotes to our civic poisons run through the American bloodstream as well. Throughout our political battles, Americans have continually found ways to neutralize their discord and catalyze diversity, turning them into sources of strength. In a sense, the country has made it this far because its conflicts always have been counteracted by positive sentiments of equal force: shared traditions, and shared ideas about the future.
Despite our constant emails, texts, and tweets, our social circles are shrinking. And our relationships outside those circles are growing increasingly superficial.
Some of these traditions, such as the protections of the Bill of Rights, are enshrined in law; others come from less tangible but still commonly held values around core American ideals, such as religious tolerance and personal freedom. In the words of the late political writer Molly Ivins, “it is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America.”
Today, those antidotes are seriously weakened; while some remedies seem to still hold promise, few of us know how to employ them anymore. It’s as though we’ve forgotten the basic craft of conversation.
In the midst of this chaos, projects have been springing up across the country to connect people across political and racial differences in an effort to strengthen our natural defenses. “After the election, people have been coming at us with their hair on fire,” said Liz Joyner, who is the executive director of a civic engagement project, The Village Square, that was founded in Tallahassee, Florida, in 2006. The project has built a reputation for tackling controversial topics, such as energy, race, and faith, in public events that attract a socially and politically diverse crowd of followers.
Ironically, Joyner made this comment in early 2017, soon after the 2016 presidential election. Today, of course, Joyner’s observations, and The Village Square’s work, are only more relevant, as America flirts with a level of social and political conflict not seen since the race riots of the 1960s, and in some ways not since the Civil War. Could a little nonprofit in Tallahassee hold the secrets for healing wounds that seem to be literally ripping this country apart?
The Village Square has its roots in the experiences of three friends who, in 2006, found themselves on different sides of a proposed coal power plant—yet remained friends. “We’d have full cage-match discussions and then go for a run or a beer,” said Bryan Desloge, a county commissioner from Leon County. The plant didn’t go through, but each member of the trio was struck by the fact that their friendships survived the debate. So were their other friends. Liz Joyner, who had worked in election campaigns for Democrats and had a background as a social worker, soon became the group’s executive director and spooled it up. Since that time, The Village Square has put on hundreds of events and opened chapters in Sacramento, California; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Fort Lauderdale.
Communication researchers have discovered that when people talk to each other face to face, they coordinate aspects of their behavior—all unconsciously. They begin to use the same words. They talk at the same rate.
The Village Square’s philosophy, not surprisingly, is centered on talking—and not just any talking, but across political differences. Its website features a fable-like origin story for American democracy, which (as the story goes) was a form of government created by people who “believed that when common folk can talk to each other and think for themselves, they come up with some pretty good ideas and can be their own bosses.” Then, as technology developed, trouble arose. “Soon enough there was a box that pretty much everyone could buy that had people inside it who talked. It wasn’t long before the people in the box talked every single minute of every single day. Watching the box got to be more fun than a barrel o’ monkeys and that country of nonstop talkers, sort of just stopped talking.”
Joyner imagines American democracy as a hundred-story skyscraper that people want to build even taller, except that the foundation is crumbling and the building is now wobbling. “There’s something foundationally wrong with the levers of how democracy works,” she told me, and this was back in 2017. “Our belief very strongly is that it’s because we don’t have as many vibrant relationships as we used to.”
Those are big, thorny claims—many of us probably believe our relationships with friends, family, and co-workers are pretty good. And, if anything, Americans talk now more than ever. But Joyner is pointing to deeper problems. Despite our constant emails, texts, and tweets, our social circles are actually shrinking. And, because of increasingly isolated lives, our relationships outside those circles are becoming superficial. The result has been a wall of mistrust between people of different belief systems—not only in Washington but among our citizenry—that seems only more and more insurmountable.
The Village Square seems to have figured out some novel ways to climb this wall, at least for the community of Tallahassee. After 10 years of effort, it reliably offers a familiar experience of togetherness where uplift is always on the menu, a sort of civic church where religious believers aren’t scorned. One key ingredient is to offer a variety of options for how citizens can use language.
In order to participate in the political sphere, people often are expected to be public speakers, but not everyone is comfortable speaking in front of crowds. Knowing this, Desloge led his county government to partner with The Village Square to host opportunities for people in Leon County to meet elected officials in churches, coffee shops, music halls, even bars. This approach fits into a more convivial mode of political life that is emerging all over the country. “You have to stop and break a little bread, look people in the eyeballs,” Joyner said. She wants to revive the idea that you can chit chat with someone on the opposing side of an issue “and leave the room feeling like, ‘hey, I kind of like that person.”
Why would this make much difference?
In numerous studies, language and communication researchers have discovered that when people talk to each other face to face, they coordinate aspects of their behavior—all unconsciously. They begin to use the same words. They talk at the same rate. They take on the same postures and gestures. It’s even possible to predict how pairs of people in a laboratory will cooperate in games by how closely their rate of speech is matched. Something physiological happens too: when people who trust each other interact in person, their levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress levels) decrease, while oxytocin levels (a hormone associated with feelings of social connectedness) go up. Interestingly, one study from 2012 showed that girls who talked to their mothers on the phone had elevated oxytocin rates—but not when they communicated by texting.
This is not to suggest that the woes of American democracy can be reduced to hormone deficits, and be solved by civic hugfests. Look at the damage to our social fabric that’s been documented in books such as Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” (2000); Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” (2012); and Arlie Hochschild’s “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right” (2016). All of these books describe various aspects of erosion in our social cohesion and longstanding norms of everyday life. Their findings connect directly to Bill Bishop’s in “The Big Sort” (2008), where he documents the many ways that Americans have begun to isolate themselves culturally, religiously, and geographically.
A team of political scientists at the University of Virginia and the University of Southern California have a name for the trend that Bishop identified: “ideological migration.” In essence, to satisfy the need to belong, Americans now move to be among others like them. Strangely, our increasingly easy access to airlines has only deepened our isolation. This why most of America’s landscape is now described as “flyover country.”
And that’s not the end of it. When it comes to the interactions we do have, a good many are now outsourced to social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter, which extend our social reach while atrophying social skills such as the ability to listen, respond kindly and openly, and so forth. What’s worse, after logging in, we’re led away from opportunities to engage with others unlike us (or at least with what they post) by algorithms designed to give us more of what we’ve demonstrated an interest in—not more of what we need. The poison this creates is then intensified by partisan media like Fox News and Breitbart on the right, and The Huffington Post and MSNBC on the left. All of them sequester audiences from the full range of facts that truly well-informed citizens need. They also undermine the possibility of a shared universe of experience and knowledge.
It turns out that the capacities for informed, open-minded conversations are cultural muscles; if not exercised, those skills atrophy. Returning them to health therefore requires careful and gradual rehabilitation.
Into this mix steps the work of The Village Square, which is now an established player in the burgeoning civic engagement-industrial complex. It’s been joined by groups such as Living Room Conversations, started in 2010 by Joan Blades, a co-founder of MoveOn.org, and AllSides.org, a technology project founded by Blades and a former Republican aide. A similar technology project is Table Tribes, founded by Hosan Lee, a designer and entrepreneur. Table Tribes says it “closes the online + offline gap” by encouraging conversations in real life based on digital media pieces delivered via an app.
It does seem strange that we need conversational prosthetics like apps, talking points, guides, and rules of engagement. Aren’t conversations natural? After all, we arrive as infants with an instinct to interact. As it turns out, the capacities for informed, open-minded conversations are cultural muscles; if not exercised, those skills atrophy. Returning them to health therefore requires careful and gradual rehabilitation.
The Village Square has several modes for providing this therapy. For example, at a dinner program event in 2016, “Created Equal and Breathing Free,” Joyner paired a young Catholic priest with a gay performance artist to talk in front of a mixed liberal-conservative audience of 160 people. (As usual, there were more liberals in the audience—Tallahassee, a college town, is a blue city in a sea of red.) The goal was to create empathy: Joyner said they wanted to make liberals better understand the conservative concern that religious liberties were being curtailed, and to expand conservatives’ understanding of the struggles of minorities, especially around marriage equality.
Before the event, Joyner went for coffee with the facilitator, the priest (Father Tim Holeda), and the performance artist (Terry Galloway), which helped warm the relationship. “We have one thing in common,” Galloway told the priest. “We both wear black.” That, Joyner remembered, broke the ice. For the evening itself, the organizers brought the regular set of Village Square conversation tools.
Two people were identified in advance, one representing the left and one representing the right, and given bells to ring—“civility bells,” they are called—if a speaker becomes insulting. That night, as often happens, the bell ringers served more as props. Joyner knew that these topics in particular put people in tribal mode, so she added a feature to get them feeling safe giving up their loyalties: the priest and the artist were given black Keds sneakers in the other’s size. “What we want to illustrate here is not to win people to our side, but to promote greater understanding,” said the facilitator. Then he gave Holeda and Galloway a “get-out-of-jail” card to allow them to take a pass on an uncomfortable question. (Neither one had to play this card.)
The audience gathered in the parquet-floored parish hall of St. John’s Episcopal Church, warming up with a meal of Greek salad and chicken. After dinner, Holeda and Galloway fielded questions from the facilitator, then bantered back and forth for a while before taking questions from the audience. Joyner herself isn’t usually on stage; she plays the Phil Donahue role, working the crowd with a microphone.
Before and after the event, audience members were asked to fill out evaluation forms, then the data were analyzed by Ravi Iyer, the executive director of Civil Politics, a group that applies moral psychology to public discourse and partners often with The Village Square. Iyer found that liberals in the audience had increased their positive attitudes about conservatives—but none had changed their minds on the specific issues. While there were fewer conservatives in the audience than liberals, they still showed a smaller positive gain in attitudes about the liberals, even accounting for their smaller numbers. “We’ve done these evaluations at other meetings for other organizations and consistently get the same result,” Iyer said. “People don’t change their opinions on issues, but they do change their opinions about people on the other side.” And, at least in this case, liberals were more willing to have conservatives as friends and neighbors.
There’s a possibility that the positive shift by conservatives was lower because they were turned off by profanity that Galloway used as part of her irreverent performance. “That’s part of the risk when you hold events like this,” Joyner said. Obviously, there’s a fine line between promoting civility and shutting down difficult conversations. Avoiding the dull and curating some irreverence is part of the special sauce.
In that regard, the event seemed to be a resounding success. One participant, a friend of Galloway’s named Susan Gage, came primarily to be entertained. “You’re going to put Terry on the stage with a Roman Catholic priest?” she said in a phone call. “Okay, I’m going to bring popcorn.”
After the event was over, Jerri Hanna, an ordained deacon in a liberal Baptist church and a frequent Village Square participant, had this to say about Father Tim’s perspective: “I can live alongside it as long as I don’t have to live with it.”
Over the last several years, The Village Square has become the do-tank to the one-man think tank of Jonathan Haidt, a New York University moral psychologist. Haidt is a prominent commentator on America’s difficulties with public discourse, and his work is devoted to the notion that each of us occupies a specific “moral matrix.”
In Haidt’s view (which appears in his book, “The Righteous Mind”), that matrix is a culture-bound combination of five universal “moral modules”: care and avoidance of harm; fairness and a sense of reciprocity; loyalty to one’s own group; respect for authority; and a belief in purity and sanctity. In his research, Haidt found that liberals value “care” and “fairness” highly, but not the other three frameworks; conservatives, meanwhile, give all five equal weight.
In an effort to make those moral modules visible, Haidt and The Village Square teamed up in 2014 to form the “Asteroids Club” (the asteroid being a metaphor for some looming threat). The club’s motto: “I’ll help you deflect your asteroid, if you help me deflect mine.” One of the club’s activities is to pair friends with differing views, and get them to seed meetings or dinner parties with a politically diverse group.
But that’s only step one; after getting together, you have to orchestrate a successful conversation.
When I asked activists and political dialogue experts what works and what doesn’t when it comes to conversations that get into the “moral matrices” of others, the key, they said, is to be nonjudgmental—and to really listen. Conversations of this nature take time, and the productive ones come from relationships established over time. If you are a true master at this game, you find a way to frame issues according to the other person’s moral values, not your own.
A prime example of this tactic was once used by Marc Hyden, who coordinates advocacy efforts for Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty. When talking one day with a man who supported the death penalty, Hyden said, “But the death penalty is a government program, and I don’t trust our government with the death penalty.” The man’s reply: “Well, I’m against the death penalty then. I don’t trust the government to fill potholes.”
As promising as all these conversations and exercises sound, they only work if all participants are open to them. Unfortunately, as Ravi Iyer of Civil Politics acknowledges, civic dialogues favor liberals because being open to others, and seeing the world from another’s perspective—what social scientists call “perspective taking”—is a more liberal trait than a conservative one. In contrast, conservatives tend to operate in terms of competition more than cooperation. So, in a sense, the current polarization suits conservatives, because it signifies that they’re winning, or at least in a game that lies inside their comfort zone. Widening the divide still further is the fact that conservatives tend to fit a more authoritarian profile. And authoritarians, psychologist Thomas Pettigrew at the University of California has found, actually go out of their way to avoid contact with out-groups.
“If the elite in this country can’t find our way past our righteous judgment to see the humanity in [those who attacked the U.S. Capitol], it’s on us. We’ve got to care about them enough to figure this out, not just be self-satisfied.”
One reason for the conservatives’ isolation may be that many in this camp have little desire to connect to more people, largely because their social needs are already being satisfied—in church. As Jacob Hess, a Village Square dialogue organizer in Salt Lake City, put it, “Many religious people say ‘I’ve got the truth I need, why would I want to spend my time with somebody else?”
And liberals don’t always help matters. For starters, they tend to assume that almost any social problem can be fixed with an infusion of facts and evidence. This commitment to the empirical can make them think they’re ready for any asteroid, but that ignores Haidt’s point—that conservatives see legitimate threats in the realm of moral values and emotional perceptions.
For Exhibit A, look at the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump loyalists. As shocking and outrageous as that day was, its causes are complex. Indeed, when Joyner tried to analyze the riot, she struggled to frame it with a note of understanding that’s more complete, and more responsible, than Trump’s characterization of the insurrectionists as “very special people.”
Joyner realizes the siege on the Capitol was deeply wrong (“morally, legally, and tragically”), but she also believes the rioters were making a point that politicians ignore at our collective peril. The point boils down to this: As industry has become increasingly high tech, with income inequality growing along with it, more and more working class Americans have lost “solid jobs that made them an integral part of the American story.” That’s why rioters could be heard yelling “Give us back our country!” And it’s why so many continue to believe the 2020 election was stolen. “Even if it’s not factually true,” Joyner says, “it’s emotionally true. And emotional truth is always stronger than facts.”
In a follow-up email, Joyner stressed that she’s not excusing the insurrectionists; like most people, she believes they should be “arrested, tried, and jailed.” But an enlightened society, she argues, must be able to “separate the signal from the noise (and the criminal). There is an understandable sentiment of desperation in there somewhere among people who are overall well-meaning but misguided and easily manipulated.” And that reality, in Joyner’s view, points the finger in another direction. “If the elite in this country can’t find our way past our righteous judgment to see the humanity in this tragedy, it’s on us. We’ve got to care about [the rioters] enough to figure this out, not just be self-satisfied. It’s the same thing we need to do with people of color crying out in horror, who have never felt part of the American story.”
In calmer moments, liberals often acknowledge issues of this sort in conservative belief systems, yet they have a hard time seeing them as worthy of attention. Why listen to people with offensive ideologies? By this point, both sides seem to be caught in a feedback loop: To overcome their biases, they first have to overcome their biases.
In 1900, then president Teddy Roosevelt argued, in a journal called “Century,” that “fellow-feeling” was critical to political and social health. “Civic life,” he wrote, cannot achieve its potential “unless it is marked by fellow-feeling, the mutual kindness, the mutual respect, the common duties and common interests” that arise when people “take the trouble to understand one another.” Roosevelt went on to say that “a large share of the rancor in political and social strife” comes from either “misunderstanding by one section, or by one class, of another” or from the fact that various groups “are so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the other’s passions…”
Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at U.C. Berkeley, has come to understand what Roosevelt feared, a development that she calls “the empathy wall.” After spending 5 years researching her book “Strangers in Their Own Land,” Hochschild composed a metaphor to explain the deep resentment she sensed in the community she had been studying in Louisiana. It was as though these people were standing in line somewhere, waiting for something they’d worked for their entire lives. Suddenly a bunch of strangers—minorities, gays, immigrants—were cutting in front of them, getting all of the goodies. And they felt cheated. Those strangers, of course, would see this metaphor rather differently. So here we are.
Despite this stalemate, Hochschild sees potential solutions. She has suggested that Americans might go on exchange programs, particularly between coastal and interior communities. The hope is that if people from different regions spent a few weeks, say, building a park or school together, Americans might get to know each other again. (Such a program might also help overcome the urban bias of the civic dialogue industry. Apart from a few exceptions, it is centered largely in cities—yet another reason that rural voters don’t believe that people in other regions are much interested in them.)
Ultimately, Liz Joyner believes, changing minds is less important than rebuilding the architecture of trust between America’s myriad tribes. New structures, of course, aren’t created overnight—they’re built slowly, layer by careful layer. But Joyner is convinced that this task is achievable. “We have to change our habits of thought. In our current political climate, too many people think the country would be better if the others we disagree with were gone or out of power. But democracy requires difference of opinion—that really is valuable.” These seem like basic principles that everyone ought to get. But sometimes it helps to go back to the basics.