Knowing who to trust online & offline
It was close to midnight. All the bars and bistros had just closed, leaving me alone on a dark, quiet street in the south of France with a major problem at hand: I hadn’t written down the keycode needed to re-enter my hotel. Being such a small town, the front desk receptionist had left at 7 p.m., leaving me helplessly alone…with nowhere to sleep.
I pondered my options as the seconds ticked by: Scale the building? Shout until another hotel guest woke up? Fork up the cash and try to locate another hotel? But before I came to any conclusion, a noise down the road startled me, and three young men turned the corner and started heading down the street toward me. All of my spidey senses lit up at once; I’d been a younger woman in this town before late at night, back during my study abroad days in college. Even then (when my French was far better than now), I’d get called on and hassled. I tried to feign casual normalcy as they passed by, praying for a non-eventful interaction.
As they approached, I glanced nonchalantly in their direction, but my eyes widened at once. I recognized one of them as my waiter from my restaurant earlier. We made eye contact. He slowed the group down and stopped altogether.
“How’s it going?” he asked me in French. I gulped and tried to keep my cool.
“Oh, you know, it’s alright. But um…I’m regrettably just…well, I forgot the passcode to this hotel. But I mean, it’s no big deal…”
As soon as I started speaking, he side-stepped me and walked to the door, tapped in a few keys, and the door clicked open. He held it open for me and gestured for me to enter.
My jaw dropped. If I had words at the time, I don’t remember them now. I accepted his kindness and went inside, then he and his friends continued on their way. They didn’t try to follow, and I got to sleep in a real bed that night. The next day, I returned to that restaurant with a bottle of wine in hand to thank my savior.
Five years later, I’m still not quite sure what happened that day. Was the waiter related to the hotel proprietors? Had he spent the night there with another foreigner recently? Or was it simply commonplace for all the locals in town to know the entrance codes for every hotel?
Whatever the case may be, I felt lucky to have skirted the system, despite the obvious overall questions about the building security as a whole.
Who can you trust?
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about that late-night incident on the street in France in a slightly different light because one thing remains unclear to me: Who was the trusted party, and who was really kept safe?
For so many years, I looked at this as a “hail mary” moment in my life. Just at the second when I needed it, there was someone there to save me and let me into the hotel. I survived the night and didn’t have to fork over extra cash to sleep in another hotel. I was kept safe from potential threats on the street.
But there’s of course the other side to the story: It’s equally likely that my “savior” was a threat to everyone else at the hotel. How would they feel knowing that people on the street could gain easy access to their lodging? If one random guy on the street happened to know the keycode in the middle of the night, who else knew it? In the end, who was the passcode really protecting?
In the end, I like to think that my waiter was just a good French guy looking to help out an American girl who got caught in a bind — as opposed to someone with malicious intent. But of course, there’s no way of really knowing this for sure.
I’ve always been the kind of person to make fast friends when I travel. Once in Dallas I met some folks at a wine bar, then got in their car with them as we drove off to a local BBQ joint on the other side of town later that night. Another time, on a beach in Brazil, I met two older women while sunbathing who took pity on me being alone, and invited me over to their home for a home-cooked meal from their cooking assistant. In France last year, you may have read about how I got invited to join a local’s New Year’s Eve party at the last minute.
I realize that some of these choices may seem risky, but for me, it’s all about assessing trust and character in the spur of the moment. And in each of these circumstances, while I certainly recognized the interactions as odd, I never felt unsafe. For every invitation I’ve accepted, there have been many more that I’ve declined. That said, it’s a delicate balance to navigate; each “new person” contact introduces new potential risks and unknowns.
If assessing trusted relationships are tricky to navigate in person, they are nearly impossible online, when shrouded behind the mask of a persona or character that you can craft out of thin air. A cold email from a stranger leaves no trace of potentially revealing body language or shifty behaviors. I’m often left making arbitrary calls like: “Can I trust the kind of person who thinks a lot is just one word?”
Just like an in-person interaction that may lead two women on the beach to invite a stranger into their home, digital interactions are just as much about the process of “sniffing each other out,” so to speak. The clues we look for are a bit different — maybe in the form of a Tweet, an emoji, or a link to an article that seemed interesting — but the process is similar in the end.
So if you do happen to find someone locked out of their “hotel” on a metaphorical street on the Internet, be good to them for me. It’d be nice to pay it forward.