What makes you immediately suspicious of someone

Why the Germans are so suspicious

Communication scientist Bentele about a common feeling

Günter Bentele in conversation with Korbinian Frenzel

In Germany people are more suspicious than in many other countries. (Stock.XCHNG / Nicole McDaniel)

Those up there do what they want anyway: Sentences like this are heard frequently in this country. Because Germans are particularly suspicious of politicians and managers, says Günter Bentele from the University of Leipzig. In some cases such an attitude could even take on pathological features.

Korbinian Frenzel: Can we trust our Chancellor that she really no longer knew about the spying on our dear American friends? The mistrust that it is so is likely to be great in this country and with good reason we can once again see ourselves confirmed in a feeling that is obviously very much alive in Germany: mistrust - be it against politicians, managers or eco-labels for example and what they promise. Are we a particularly suspicious people? At least that is how it sometimes seems to us in the "local time" team when we leaf through the newspaper every day. But we don't want to trust our own feelings so easily and that's why we talk to someone who has to know this from a professional perspective: Günter Bentele, communications professor at the University of Leipzig. His focus is trust research. Good morning, Mr. Bentele!

Günter Bentele: Yes good morning!

Frenzel: Are we Germans a particularly suspicious people?

Bentele: You can definitely say that. There are studies that are carried out around the world, and it turns out that the German population, especially in certain areas - economy, politics - is less familiar, significantly less familiar than is the case in other countries.

Frenzel: In other words, it primarily affects the authorities, or do we also distrust each other particularly strongly, over the garden fence, among colleagues?

Bentele: I don't have any results now. But interpersonal trust is at a medium level. Around two thirds trust people like you and me, so a question is asked, and that's not much less in Germany than in other countries. But in relation to certain organizations or areas, take the banking sector and so on, confidence is very low.

Frenzel: Why is that? Do you have any explanations for this?

Bentele: Of course there are explanations for this. These are the experiences people have with certain areas. Every scandal that goes through the media or is also defined by the media naturally contributes to the fact that certain people - take Christian Wulff or take certain companies that are associated with corruption or that have been proven to be, take Siemens a few years ago. This is how distrust arises. Of course, trust is something that can be regained through certain measures. If you repent, if you apologize, if you do better, if you punish or fire those responsible, these are mechanisms for regaining trust. This is a permanent process of building trust and mistrust and you always have to differentiate between which trustworthy objects you are talking about, whom or what you trust and who trusts. There are big differences.

Frenzel: Now you know it a bit from these statements: They do what they want anyway. I think that tends to suggest something like, well, not necessarily the intellectual approach to a problem. Is the distrust something like the basic grumbling of the stupid, or is it the sword of the clever?

Bentele: No! I think a certain amount of mistrust is also required if you want to build trust. You need a certain skepticism. You cannot believe everything that you are presented with, and in this respect a healthy mistrust - we speak of healthy mistrust - is by no means automatically the opposite of trust, but rather a, we say, functional equivalent, i.e. a kind of prerequisite. The mistrust must not become too high, otherwise it can become pathological.

Frenzel: Do we perhaps also have a special level of mistrust in this country because we had a generation of grandparents and parents who perhaps trusted their leaders a little too much?

Bentele: I do think that such historical reasons play a role. It's fascinating when you look at it in comparison, for example, between South America, Asia or Europe. The Europeans are generally a little less trusting or generally trust politics or the economy less than, for example, the Asian region and partly in South America. But there are also big differences. I was just looking at some data recently. In Mexico, for example, there is a relatively high level of trust in the economy, significantly more than in Germany, but little trust in the government. That is even less than in Germany, for example, people trust in the government, trust in government performance or work. There are very big differences: In China, around three quarters of the population trust the economy to a relatively high degree and 81 percent trust the government. These are results that have not been recorded by the Chinese government, but by an American-based agency that conducts a large-scale confidence poll every year.

Frenzel: If we stick to the differences - are there also differences in our country? I am thinking of former GDR citizens perhaps in comparison to former FRG citizens.

Bentele: There are such differences. People who live in East Germany, in the new federal states, are a little less willing to trust institutions in many areas. You can say that after the fall of the Wall they certainly had reason enough here and there, they were betrayed, there were many things that were new to them, where they were duped and so on. In addition, trust in state institutions was of course very low in the GDR even before the fall of the Wall. So there is a mistrust of government agencies, official state agencies, which is more pronounced than in the West.

Frenzel: If we now look again at the source of the greatest possible distrust that we are currently experiencing: the scandal surrounding the wiretapping of the Americans and other secret services. What can you do there to turn distrust back into trust?

Bentele: There are a number of ways you can develop trust. Transparency is one of the most important possibilities, that is, how something works, how something is to be explained. But of course this is generally difficult with secret services. Secret services are called that because they work in secret. If every secret service would make everything open, make what it is doing transparent, you could no longer do secret service work. Establishing transparency explains why certain things that violate our norms, that the Americans, for example, eavesdrop on the messages of the Europeans and so on, would be things that could at least partially help to rebuild trust.

Frenzel: That's what Günter Bentele, professor of communication management at the University of Leipzig, says. Thank you for talking to us.

Bentele: Many Thanks!

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