Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Sic transit gloria

In this looking-glass world, trust invariably goes the way glory went in another looking-glass world:

‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”’ Alice objected.
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.’

Consultancy firms’ experts will readily construct what they call trust quotients for any individual, firm or brand willing to stump up the dosh to pay for it. Trust experts in polling organizations do similar for politicians and governments. While these can be quite useful sometimes they’re pretty much a case of getting what you measure: if your TQ’s down you don’t get the job, you don’t get the deal, you don’t get the success or you don’t get elected, so do these TQ exercises, modify this TQ behaviour and Bob’s your uncle.

But who, I wonder, ever asks, when they’re questioned, what the questioner means by trust. Then, because trust has been turned into a portmanteau, Humpty Dumpty kind of word, I wonder what the answer might be if they did.

Trust gets the nod because it’s a more evocative, in a sense more emotionally engaging word, more ambiguous, and for that more powerful than any of the dozen or so others used interchangeably with it. The others though fit the TQ bill more closely I reckon. Reliability quotient, believability quotient, dependability quotient, confidence quotient would all do equally well it seems to me. And all of them have a more business-like ring to them. But trust gets it thanks to its ability to tug at the heartstrings and create a patina of morality.

Trust has a feel-goodness about it, a pleasing ambiguity - it means anything, something, everything, nothing - that fits in quite nicely with CSR, regulatory bodies and ethical policies of all kinds. And since these have a (kind of) flavour of the month focus right now, trust is bowdlerized to fit and Humpty Dumpty wins again.

Thank goodness for Krugman’s first principle of the looking-glass world: don’t expect things to make sense in the terms in which they’re presented. Reliability quotient of one hundred for that, I reckon. Believability quotient ditto.