Musings On Trust and Trustworthiness

To continue an emerging theme about talking about performative modalities, one of my classes recently encouraged me to think about the ways in which we perform both trust and trustworthiness. So here I am, thinking about it. In my contact improv class (I know, I’ve talked about this a lot; it’s one of my favorite classes so I’m sure it’ll continue to come up) we’re working on a variety of iterations of exercises with trust falling at the moment, in which the performance of both trust and trustworthiness is very physically explicit. (Edit: I’ve been sitting on this post for about a week and a half because life has gotten in the way of things, so we’ve since moved on from trust falls mostly, but the subject matter is still applicable) A good combination of trust and trustworthiness here reads in relaxed body language, lack of facial tension, and a host of other well-documented unspoken bodily cues. And, notably, the expression of trust and trustworthiness is essential in both partners for this exercise to run smoothly.  The expression of trust and trustworthiness that we can’t consciously (usually) control is nonverbal and mediated largely by body language. I’m inclined to believe this to be a more “genuine” expression of trust and trustworthiness, if such a thing exists, as it’s a more immediate subconscious reaction.

Quite frequently, our instinct is to say things like “I’ve got you,” or “I’m here,” as a performance of trustworthiness in an exercise such as trust falling. Verbal communication is an interesting modality of performance of trustworthiness because I’m struggling to think of an example of a time when, in the long term, I’ve trusted someone exclusively from something they’ve said. But when we’re doing an exercise like trust falling where we’re in immediate need of some confirmation of trust, verbalization seems to be the preferred modality. I’m inclined to believe that this is because it’s a modality we can quickly interpret and judge. Its faults are in that it’s highly consciously mediated. Your body language is expressed much more quickly than your verbalization and with much less conscious mediation. That is to say, it’s much more difficult to not be genuine with your body language than with your words. So why is it so comforting for us to hear, “I’ve got you,”? Why do we feel the need to confirm verbally what our bodies should already be saying subconsciously?  I’m super guilty of this also, which is only something I’ve recently realized (due to my professor bringing up the amount of talking in the room). I was a little surprised to realize this because I consider myself to be someone who’s generally pretty quiet in dance class (at least while moving) (Edit, again: It has recently been brought to my attention that I am no longer really a quiet person in dance class…oops), and someone who prefers to speak through movement than words (generally). So why do I need verbal confirmation?

Speech is easy, both as a performance of trust and trustworthiness. It’s easy for me to say, “I’ve got you,” and, “I trust you.” It’s much more difficult, and I speak both personally and generally here, to take either of those to heart. I, personally, have come to operate under a mode of deem-someone-untrustworthy-until-proven-trustworthy and as a result I perform half-true verbalized trust all the time. Me saying, “I trust you,” is rarely the whole truth, and I think this is the case for a lot of people. Which is not to say that “whole truth” exists hardly ever in any form, as I’m a pretty firm believer in a lack of black versus white and, instead, a perpetual grey area. Anyways. What I mean to say is, it’s easy and it’s comfortable to say things without meaningful introspection and we do it all the time without even acknowledging that we’re doing it.  It’s a lot of mental work to move past that.  Something else that I’m coming to know this semester is that being comfortable with discomfort is a valuable and necessary thing.  Notionally, I’ve been aware of and practicing this for quite some time as it’s a rather simple concept.  But I’ve only really been able to understand its value for growth recently.  While comfort is essential – you can’t spend your whole life in discomfort, otherwise you’ll never recognize what comfort is – there’s something so incredibly easy about getting stuck in it without thinking about it.  Not only easy, but dangerously familiar.  I am of the opinion that anything without introspection is choosing unawareness, and unawareness is (likely subconsciously) choosing conformity.

Speaking both from the perspective of an activist and just a human who has to make life choices, conformity is a trap.  Our brains are built to support the environment that we’re placed in, meaning it’s much easier for us to trust the biases of the world around us than it is to actively acknowledge their presence and work against it.  It’s like your brain is swimming against the current – it’s work and requires constant active thought.  Conformity to the biases of our environment is comfortable, and sometimes certainly necessary for survival.  But it’s also how we get stuck in worlds vectored towards dystopia.  If your brain isn’t doing the work of fighting the societal current, your brain is inherently conforming to the current (i.e. the biases).  Coincidentally, this is why people rarely notice they’re living in a revolution.  It’s so easy for us to look at history and point to times of critical change and revolution, but we have a much greater level of difficulty pinpointing these critical moments in real time.  Our brain adapts to our environment (our brains are excellent at adaptation) and makes it feel normal.  This is a survival mechanism, to some extent at least: you have to trust that the world you live in is normal, or at least is not broken, to go on best surviving in it.  And while this can easily be an individual coping mechanism that is our brain saving itself from intense confusion, it also leads to mass conformity being very easy, and diversion from the societal norms being very difficult.  We are living in a critical moment of revolution right now, and our ability to vector our society away from our current dystopian leanings hinges on our ability to recognize the biases and the failings of our current society.  Introspection is necessary.

To bring this back to performance of trust and trustworthiness, trust through speech is highly performative and deserves a healthy amount of analysis/unpacking.  It’s easy to speak trust and not mean it, and it’s comfortable to perform trustworthiness in these situations.  It’s also easy to perform trust in our society, and to assume that our societal structures are trustworthy.  It’s comfortable to assume trustworthiness without stripping down the layers of societal performativity.  Our specific social constructs hold our current society up by a very thin string, and our performance of trust in the system provides a sort of casing around the thin string that doesn’t allow us to see how loosely it’s held together.  It’s comfortable to keep supporting the string and its layers of encasings, and this comfort doesn’t come out of nowhere.  It’s natural for the societal structures to be trusted because we’re so tightly bound in the thin string of our society.  If it comes crashing down, so does so much of what we know.  The unknown is frightening, and certainly uncomfortable, even if it is definitively for the best.  The known is comfortable.  This comfort is a trap.  We perform ourselves into traps.  (Side note for anyone who knows me well: I have an inclination to draw a complex diagram of this but I will spare you my multidimensional nonsense this time) In my opinion, trust and trustworthiness are complex and nuanced concepts that are never a black and white can or can’t be trusted.  Specifically, any notion of trust or trustworthiness is performed.  And any performance deserves an analysis.

In the same way we shouldn’t let a staged dance performance go unanalyzed (though there is always a politics to that analysis…perhaps that’s for another blog post, though), we shouldn’t let a performance of trust or trustworthiness go without introspection.  Words, of course, are meaningful.  And maybe this is pessimistic of me, but taking them at solely their surface meaning is not enough.  There’s a politics to even the most seemingly benign statement, and to trust this without introspection is to conform to the societal norms invoked in whatever benign statement is being made.  All this to say, through the lens of dance/trust exercises in contact improv (as nearly everything I do is through the lens of dance), I see analysis of the performance of our trust in our society as a form of activism.  Choosing to be introspective about what we do and don’t trust about the structures we encounter on a day to day basis is a form of resistance, as any active form of rejection of the conformity is a form of resistance.  And like I said, it’s mentally exhausting to do this all the time.  But especially in our current political climate, it is so necessary.  We can’t let the social constructs that have spiraled us into our current place and time become any more normalized than they already are.  Thus, we cannot come to trust our thin string of a society so much that this becomes normal.  So we resist; we strip down the performative casings surrounding our very, very thin string.  And that resistance starts with an analysis of our society’s performance of trustworthiness, and our performance of our trust in our society.

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