I often joke that my friend is the “Repo Mom.” She serves as board treasurer for a local non-profit and must constantly hound people to pay their bills. This vital service to the organization is not exactly a laugh riot. She is not paid for this volunteer gig—and is a harried mom of three. But she does the work because we have a dearth of volunteers. Our county’s many non-profits and town boards perpetually need board members. This inverse game of musical chairs—too many seats, not enough bottoms to fill them—is relentless. But despite our population stagnation in Windham County, there are still plenty of residents who could volunteer, but choose not to.
Another friend’s recent experience reminded me why this may be so. He recounted a board meeting in which citizens came to complain to—and harass—the board about a recent decision. One particularly indignant and ill-informed woman accused the board of malfeasance. When provided accurate information, she refused to accept it. Her accusatory comments left the board members feeling discouraged and angry. I imagine thought bubbles floated above weary heads: Why, exactly, am I doing this? Did I volunteer for this torture?
As a former social studies teacher (and the child of a grateful immigrant), I vigorously embrace civic involvement. To create a more just, lovely, and dynamic world, we must involve ourselves in local politics and the important decision-making of local nonprofit boards. Whether advocating for new sidewalks, shoring up the grand list, or raising funds for an arts organization, community members make the whole system go. But not every issue requires micromanagement or critical oversight. And starting a conversation from a place of distrust of others is not productive.
A hefty segment of Windham County’s residents lives in a counterculture marked by proud distrust of government. But distrust of others’ intentions—obviously—is not unique to Brattleboro. A poll from the Pew Research Center revealed a curious twist about Americans’ distrust of their leaders: Even as more Americans distrust government, they want government to do more for them. We want action, but when that action veers—even slightly—from our own deeply held beliefs, we feel anxiety, fear and distrust. We question the intentions of those who appear to have some power or control. And we often make an instant decision about whom we can trust simply based on an individual’s face.
Alexander Todorov and Nikolaas Oosterhof—two Princeton psychology researchers—study the many messages conveyed by one’s face. They developed a computer program that pinpoints which specific characteristics of the human face lead others to interpret a person as trustworthy or fearsome. Todorov explains, “Humans seem to be wired to look to faces to understand the person’s intentions…People are always asking themselves, ‘Does this person have good or bad intentions?” The horizontal plane that contains the eyes, nose and mouth conveys an enormous amount of information—deserved or not—about an individual’s perceived trustworthiness.
Our split-second judgments about whether a person can be approached or should be avoided appear to boil down to about a dozen facial characteristics. U-shaped mouths and eyes that form a surprised look instill trust in others; a face with the edges of the mouth curled down and eyebrows that point down at the center is deemed untrustworthy. You can’t easily change your facial characteristics, but you can make yourself more approachable without having to resort to plastic surgery. Todorov and Oosterhof determined that just changing your facial expressions—to be more open and less threatening—has a similar, positive impact on your interactions with the public.
The questions we ask during meetings can also shift tense dynamics. Assistant professor of organizational behavior at Cornell Michele Williams—who studies trust in the workplace—asserts that “perspective taking” can readily rebuild trust when there is tension between colleagues. It can be as simple as asking the question, “You seem concerned about something.” This kind of guileless question, Williams contends, “generates positive emotions in others and motivates trust, information sharing, cooperation, learning and flexible responses.” She stresses that we often assume we know the roots of someone’s distrust, but we are usually wrong. Perspective taking helps determine whether frustration and distrust are rooted in the particular issue being presented or if it is actually spillover from other areas of one’s life.
Board members can work to mitigate suspicion from critics, but critics must endeavor to keep conversations civil and productive. When discourse at public meetings is unnecessarily based in fear and mistrust, we need to name it and confront it. If we want citizens to continue to serve, we all have an obligation to ensure that these often thankless positions do not become pure agony.
I’m reminded of the brilliant blue robin’s egg I found while running last week. I still had two more miles to go, but I desperately wanted to carry it home to show my children. I needed to adjust my grip constantly to honor its fragility—and not squash it—while simultaneously grasping tightly enough so as not to drop my precious find. In public meetings we must allow similar freedom of thought while maintaining strong boundaries and taking care not to crush the process. It is a tricky maneuver but it can be done.
My children examined the intact robin’s egg before breakfast that morning.