Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Are the Spanish more trusting than Americans?

It would never have occurred to me to research or write about this aspect of life in Spain, or compare it to the US, but you never know what interesting phenomena you are going to run into when you go to live in another country. 

There have been three particular incidents/situations here that have caused me to ask this question.

First, going out for Tapas.  Tapas, or 'pinchos' as they are called here in Cantabria, are snacks sold for (usually) 2 euros each at bars and cafés.  (As I mentioned in a previous post, 'Life in Spain: First Impressions', bars and cafés in Spain offer more or less the same selection of food and drink, but have different opening hours).  How to describe pinchos?  Well, imagine a loaf of French bread, or a baguette, cut up into lots of small pieces.  Then add 2-3 layers of toppings to each piece.  Blue cheese with roasted red pepper and an anchovie.  Bonito or tuna with caramelized onions and an olive.  A piece of omlette with white asparagus and a slice of tomato.  So yummy -- but I digress. 

When you go to a bar in Spain, you can either (a) sit at the bar, (b) sit at a table, or (c) sit or stand outside on the sidewalk (or street in pedestrianized areas).  Wherever you sit, you order from the bar, but you don't pay until you leave.  It would be so easy for someone to walk off without paying, but you are trusted not to.  When it's busy, and you are ordering from multiple people working at the bar, you start to wonder how they are keeping track of your bill.  Then you discover they aren't.  When you ask for the bill, they ask you what you had.  It's up to you to tell them how many drinks and pinchos you ordered so that they can charge you accordingly.  It would be so easy to cheat and give a lower number, but you are trusted not to.  

Second, health care.  For some time now, I've been in need of physical therapy following injuries to my hand and knee.   But, with the other demands on my time, I haven't made it a priority.  So, one of the things I decided to do while on sabbatical was start a course of physical therapy.  The treatment is fascinating -- my hand goes into a hot paraffin bath before being worked on.  I was skeptical at first, but it's amazing how well it works to ease stiffness, take away pain, and increase flexibility.  I might have to buy one when I get back to Florida.  But, again, I digress..... 

So far, having gone to physical therapy three times a week for the past couple of weeks, I am the only person who has brought up the concept of payment.   There is no 'front office'; the physical therapist manages his own accounts.  When I arrived for my first session, wallet in hand, he waved it away, saying 'no no, you pay at the end.'  At the end of the session, again I tried to pay, but again he waved me away, repeating 'you pay at the end.'  It turns out that 'at the end' means at the end of the treatment (which he expects to last about 6-8 weeks).  I had to insist on knowing the amount -- as a self-pay private patient, I have to keep track of how much I'm spending.  He said it would be 30 euros per session (slightly less than the 40 dollar co-payment for physical therapy covered by insurance in the US).  He hasn't asked me to fill out any forms; he hasn't asked for any ID.  He doesn't even know my last name, let alone where I live.  He takes everything I say at face value.  He trusts me.  

Third, volunteer work.   Ever since watching the 'Dia de la Paz' (Day of Peace) festivities in the playground of the local elementary school the day after we moved into the flat,  I had it in my mind that I would like to volunteer at the school a couple of mornings a week.  For more information about the celebration, see picture and description in my post 'Life in Spain; First Impressions.  (I'll be writing more about how Spanish schools celebrate this day in a future blog post).  

Eventually I summoned up the courage to present myself to the school, introduce myself, and offer my assistance in English and/or music classes.  I was taken to the director's office, and five minutes later found myself in a classroom interacting with children.  They did not ask for ID.  They did not ask me to fill out a form, provide references, or complete a background check.  I did not have a child at the school.  I was just a person who quite literally 'walked in off the street.'  I could have been anyone.  Their response was to thank me and put me to work.  They trusted that I was exactly who I said I was.  

So this brings us back to the question at hand:  Are Spanish people naturally more trusting than Americans?  I felt I had to know if any research had been done in this area, so I googled the question, and found very little; only this 2012 Australian study that analyzed online behavior across cultures.  You can read the full article here:  it's called Internet behavior:  Americans too trusting, Spanish too superficial, and Germans are annoyed.  

As you can guess by the title, the results suggest that, as consumers and evaluators of online information, Americans are the most trusting, Spanish are the most likely to be influenced by the appearance of a website, and Germans are the most concerned with accuracy.   

Of course, none of the situations I have described above relate to 'online behavior', but I thought there might have been some correlation between trusting face to face and trusting online.  

I have no idea what all this means, so I'm afraid there is no satisfactory conclusion to this blog post.   Comparing my experience with the research, there seems to be a contradiction.  But, maybe there isn't.  If Spanish people make judgements based on appearances, as the study suggests, perhaps they decided that I looked like exactly who I said I was.  And perhaps Americans, being naturally trusting, have had to put systems in place  (i.e. payment up front, ID checks, background checks) to protect themselves from being taken advantage of. 

Very interested to hear what others think, so please feel free to post comments below.  Thanks!

1 comment:

  1. This is a really interesting post, Sarah! I, too, feel like we are slowly becoming less and less trustful in the U.S.; perhaps our increasing social isolationism plays a part? I was getting a document notarized the othe day, and the notary casually mentioned about how she had had to notarize permission slips for children to carry water bottles in class. Kind of unbelievable, no? I don't think more trust in general is particular just to Spain, though; when I was in Japan, where a great deal of emphasis is placed on social harmony and personal responsibility, I was often struck by how safe and secure I felt. Once, when I left a wallet full of money and sensitive documents in a taxi in a large city, the driver spent three hours tracking me down from place to place to make sure that he returned in to me. Amazing. The article you mentioned above also looks interesting...thanks for sharing your thoughts!