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What trust gives us

Philosopher Esa Saarinen says Finland is a society based on trust.
Filosofi Esa Saarinen, kuva: Mikko Raskinen
Esa Saarinen says strong trust can be seen in routine moments, when everyday life just flows. Photos: Mikko Raskinen

Like walking on thin ice – that’s what it feels like when we lack trust. Progress becomes cautious and fearful. Philosopher Esa Saarinen says that when trust fades, the problems and suspicions that exist between people can grow larger. 

‘Anxiety sneaks in,’ Saarinen explains. ‘You start to wonder, is the ice strong enough to hold you if it’s already cracked in one spot? And you realise how good you had it when trust was strong.’

The Aalto University professor says it’s hard to be at the forefront of innovation if your mind is jammed full of thoughts of what could go wrong; worries gnaw away at creativity and attention is pulled to tangential matters that don’t progress your actual cause.

But just seeing someone else act in a steady manner, in a way that enhances trust, can banish those false concerns, Saarinen believes.

‘What garners my trust is fairness and uncompromising conduct that doesn’t come from a self-centred place. Put in ice hockey terms, I really admire people who don’t go for the impressive slapshot, but rather prefer the minimal, yet enormously effective, wrist shot instead,’ he jokes.

Trust also helps us make leaps forward. The fact is, sometimes people just don’t notice when something entirely new is on its way and this makes support from – and trust in – others so valuable.

‘If others show trust in us or what we’re doing, it’s easier to have faith in something that’s still finding its final shape,’ he says.

What garners my trust is fairness and uncompromising conduct that doesn’t come from a self-centred place.

Esa Saarinen

Finns see the bigger picture

Saarinen considers Finland to be a society of trust. One of the country’s strengths is the tendency to take other people seriously and to shoulder responsibilities together. This has also helped the Nordic country to weather the corona crisis better than many other countries.

‘In Finland, it’s fairly natural to put ourselves in each other’s shoes and look at the bigger picture. While Finns sometimes come across as curt, underneath the surface is the desire to stay authentic, and connect with others in a way that counts. You can see this in our distaste for overpromising as Finns want to act as they say – and build trust.  Breaking from the pack to do your own thing isn’t seen as admirable; egoistic action is seen for what it is.’

Saarinen says strong trust can be seen in routine moments, when everyday life just flows. Even when conflicts arise, the members of a community with high levels of trust will re-charge their action for building the common good.

‘If someone acts inconsiderately in Finland, it’s seen as an exception — it must have been a misunderstanding. It means that if someone splashes a little slush on my feet, I won’t charge at them in anger.’

Esa Saarinen pitämässä Filosofia ja systeemiajattelun onelinekurssia, kuva: Mikko Raskinen
Before he retires from his professorship this summer, Saarinen is giving his renowned Finnish-language lecture series, Philosophy and system thinking, for the last time. Arranged since 2001, lecture recordings have been seen more than a million times.

Trust is anticipating the future in the present

Developed with Professor Raimo P. Hämäläinen, Saarinen’s systems intelligence theory merges human sensitivity with engineering. The idea is that the structure of a system, for example, an organisation, will steer behaviour. But once an environment changes sharply and gives rise to uncertainty, its structures don’t usually tell how to act — this is when trust takes on a decisive role. Hidden individual resources that structures conceal can, in such situations, be revealed in quite surprising ways. 

‘When people care about the bigger picture they’re a part of, space opens up for everyone to think about more than just themselves. Even if I’m mistreated, I can trust that my interests will nevertheless be considered in some way. I can also make sacrifices in the present moment because I trust that others will do so, too.’

But money or certain structures can’t guarantee good deeds, Saarinen says.

‘Trust is based on anticipating the future in the present. I can take risks because I trust others to know the name of the game and recognise that my actions are for the common good. The Slush event — which has grown in the hands of our students into the leading start-up event globally — is an excellent example of how this kind of thinking can produce success. Trust in the power of creativity and in the wisdom of authorities to back emerging out-of-the-box breakthroughs was behind its creation, not money and structures.’

Saarinen lists corruption, egoism and the ideology of self-interest as the conceptual opposites of trust. Things that boost trust are friendliness, benevolence and a willingness to address the bigger picture.

‘Trust for one another is the default for Finns. We treat each other sort of like we’re all distant family, and this forms the foundation of our everyday life.’

Before he retires from his professorship this summer, Saarinen is giving his renowned Finnish-language lecture series, Philosophy and system thinking, for the last time. Arranged since 2001, lecture recordings have been seen more than 800 000 times.

The article will be published on Aalto University Magazine 28 in May, 2021.

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