Like any good trust-building exercise, it started when a moment of tension took a sharp left turn into the unexpected. I was down to visit with Jonas, an Amish carpenter, about how my associates and I were going to sell his craftsmanship on the internet. More than a meeting of cultures, centuries were colliding. The moment of truth came when he went to ask his apprentice sons about a few details. Rather than turn away for privacy, Jonas simply slipped into his native language, Plattdietsch. I caught it immediately.
I could understand what he was saying since I learned the language from my Grandmother long ago. This was an ethical problem that had to be addressed immediately. I spoke up before I realized what I was doing.
“Enschuldig. Ich kanne Plattdiethsch sprach”
Jonas smiled broadly, “Du kennst unser Sprachen?”
I felt my tendency to blush rise, “Kjell ein kleine bait. Ich kanne du verstehe.”
What I said was, “Excuse me, I can speak Plattdietsch”
Jonas was more excited to see me as a distant cousin for knowing this ancient dialect, which is why he asked, “You know our language?” It was the knowing that mattered.
I said, “Only a little bit. I can understand you,” but at this point I’m sure I was using Hochdeutsch, or regular German, to fill in where I had to.
From this day on, Jonas always treated me like family. We inherently trusted each other in a way that, if you know the Amish, goes beyond yourself. Responsibility is shared in a way that trust becomes something that just happens, something that fills in the spaces between people like mortar between bricks because without this cement you have nothing more than a pile of loose bricks. It’s the way things are done.
I learned a lot working with my distant cousins, as I came to know them. My Grandfather left the Bretheren long ago, a faith similar enough to the Amish that I’m sure we are blood relatives. Trust, built by both blood and sharp displays of integrity, is what keeps the group together.
One of the interesting things about an Amish community is that they know perfectly well there is an optimal size where tasks like ice chopping and so on can be shared joyously without a lot of strife. Somewhere around 80 families is getting big, and at 100 they divide into two communities of 50 families each. No more than about 150 adults is what time has shown a to be the limit on a tight community.
Sociologist Robin Dunbar has studied many civilizations, and developed something called Dunbar’s Number, first popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. Dunbar states that 150 is about the maximum number of people you can really know well enough to trust, which is to say the upper limit of any organization that needs cohesion. The Amish of Harmony, Minnesota and Cresco, Iowa live by this as they have for centuries.
Tradition of that kind works well among the rolling hills that look like the Palatinate the Amish left behind 300 years ago, but around them is a different ancient arrangement. In his work Republic, Plato speculated that the maximum size for a Republic is about 10,000 people – and that he didn’t know why, just that this was approximately the case. What we now know is that the political arrangement he was describing clearly works on a “friend of a friend” basis. If we can know about 100 or so people well enough to trust them, and they know about 100 then 10,000 is as far as we can go with a first hand introduction or recommendation. Perhaps as high as 22,500, according to Dunbar, but there’s always some overlap. The square counties that divide up Iowa and southern Minnesota are dotted with towns in the center of about 10,000 people each, deliberately carved out of the land to follow this classic rule.
Where this becomes interesting is in modern urban life or modern online life. I have over 700 followers on twitter, which is to say considerably more than I can know well enough to say that I really trust them. Who are they, and why do they have access to so much about me? I can’t really say.
The trust that we have to place is not in individual people, but in an idea. All information and connection between us comes from an understanding that we expect everyone to be, at least publicly, a decent person. That may seem like a good approach, but it greatly magnifies the Jungian concept of a face that we turn to the light and a face that we keep in the shadow. Watching how many people appear to brag about their credentials or how successful they are leads me to wonder who they really are when the lights are low and the clock chimes 3:00 AM.
This is an old problem with cities, of course, and it’s one reason why truly urban people are often different from rural. You simply cannot know everyone in your life to the extent you need to in order to have a deep trust and a rich community life. When access to the world brings us into contact with 300 million people in the USofA, or nearly 7 billion people around the world, who do we trust?
All we can hope for is a small incident, an accident of time and space that gives us a moment to be at our very best. That’s not likely among everyone we meet, however, and so an online community is unlikely to ever be based on a deep sense of trust. That’s not a substitute for a real, in-the-flesh community life, even if you have no interest in going as deep into it as the Amish.