Trust Is a Micro-Habit

My plane back from Portugal was delayed. The staff were already rolling their eyes at the gate, and after much back and forth, three queues of people standing so close together it might have been just one finally piled down the stairs and towards the aircraft.

To everyone’s further dismay, we found a bus waiting at the bottom of those stairs. 10 minutes in a metal box at 37 degrees centigrade? Not great. Before I even got on, however, there was another obstacle: While everyone around me just boarded the bus, a flight attendant suddenly half-grabbed my suitcase in passing, stopping me in my tracks. “You have to check this bag!” she almost yelled at me.

“What? Why? What’s going on?” You might be familiar with this now common ritual: Airlines allow you to take a small suitcase and, say, a backpack into the plane without checking in any luggage, but then when everyone actually does that, they renege and randomly tell people to check their bags after all.

This has happened to me before, and when they do it at the gate, that’s fine. Sometimes, they’re smart and even offer something in return, like earlier boarding. After all, this is a different deal than the one you had made. Someone nabbing my suitcase at the last second, however, was new to me.

After the lady slapped a tag on both my bag and my boarding pass, she mumbled something about dropping it “somewhere near the plane,” and I thought that did not sound like a convincing plan to actually get my bag back to Germany. I asked her again, and she said to leave it at the stairs going up to the plane. Mind you, however, that in the meantime, about 20 people passed us, happy as clams to enter the bus with their luggage in tow. Needless to say, I did not like the smell of the situation.

After I got on the bus, I noticed only about three other people had tags on their bags. Great. The flight attendant tried to nab another lady as she walked by, which ended in a screaming match and, I believe, the passenger in question retaining full authority over her suitcase.

While I was boiling on the bus, I had an idea of questionable ethics: “What if I just remove the tag? No one will be any the wiser. I enter the plane, put my bag in the overhead compartment, and shush.” I ended up debating this move in my head the entire bus ride but ultimately concluded I shouldn’t do it.

When I actually got to the plane, however, I couldn’t spot anyone taking the bags at first. As I was almost on the stairs up into the cabin already, I saw someone. A few people handed him their bags, but in that moment, something in me snapped, and I held on tight to my little black trolley.

In the end, I snuck it by the flight attendants in the aisle, and while I was waiting in front of my seat for my turn to store my luggage, I instinctively pulled off the tag last-minute. There was a lot of space, by the way. I put my suitcase in the compartment and kept my backpack under my seat.

Later, another guy came to store his bag, and a lady noticed he had a tag on it. “You should have checked this bag!” she told him. The guy just pretended not to understand her. “English? Portuguese? This should have been checked in! But it’s ok.” She didn’t sound convinced.

The lesson of this story is that trust is a micro-habit. It is often established in the details. Had the first lady been more friendly, I might have complied. Had the people at the gate been more proactive about getting people’s luggage early, I might have complied. Had they asked for more people’s suitcases than a random sample of only a handful, I might have complied. The list goes on and on.

There are a thousand small tweaks to this scenario, and it probably takes less than a handful of them for me to hand my suitcase over rather than sneak it into the cabin. It’s fascinating, really. How you say something. When you say it. The look on your face. The faintest details can make someone insta-adjust their behavior because, deep down in their gut, they no longer trust you (or now suddenly do).

In this case, after several blows to the glass, the circle of trust was broken, and once it is, especially for a short-term transaction like a plane ride, there is no way you’ll rebuild it in time.

The micro-habit aspect of trust is not something you can practice consciously. You’ll rarely observe its minute details in time to adjust them on the fly. No, this kind of trust-building must flow from a larger, more conscious decision to build trust on purpose. To hand out some trust advances as part of whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Only then will the right micro-behaviors follow. The smile at the gate. A friendly tone in a difficult situation. And so on. Your subconscious will take care of the rest.

We tend to make a big deal out of trust, and it is. A loud commitment, a big promise, those things absolutely matter. But we often forget about the little, yet in sum equally powerful, trust-building interactions that happen along the way. Just because we don’t control these aspects as much does not mean they are irrelevant. In fact, they sometimes make or break trust altogether, on occasion overshadowing, or even negating, the big promise they were only supposed to aid.

Every now and then, remember: Trust is both a macro- and a micro-habit. Oh, and don’t sneak your suitcase on the plane.