3.9 Ethos: Building Trust and Connections

Anna Mills

Trust through Distance and Formality

Black female judge speaking in her courtroom
Judge Presiding in Court. “Hennepin County Judge Tanya Bransford” by Tony Webster on Flickr, licensed CC BY-NC 2.0.

Often when we think of an “authoritative style,” we think of someone who speaks impersonally and with confidence, describing how some aspect of reality works without involving their own or the reader with “I,” “you,” or “we.” This approach to earning the reader’s trust is all about setting aside the personal to pursue objective, neutral, unbiased pronouncements. It requires the writer to step back from their own personality and feelings to ally their speech with impersonal truth.

A formal style indicates that the writer takes seriously the institution they are speaking for and the rigorous expectations of argument. Traditionally, academic writing is expected to be relatively formal and distanced.

Think of a judge in black robes presiding over a courtroom. The judge is there as an official, not a private individual, and what they say is understood to represent the rule of law, not their personal opinion. When they speak, they use formal language and usually describe events impersonally. As a representative of the law, they represent the government and the interests of the people as a whole.

Think also of a professor asked to speak on a news program about their area of expertise. Despite a climate scientist’s degrees and institutional affiliation, we may not trust their personal musings about the future of humanity while flying over melting Greenland ice. Their impersonal style of speech and their focus on facts about climate, reassure us that what they tell us is unbiased, objective, neutral, and vested with all the authority of academic rigor. If they use “we” it will be to refer to their academic colleagues, as in “As climate scientists, we look at overall trends rather than specific snowstorms or heat waves.” We will expect the scientist to speak in definite, precise language and to speak with a certain dignity and seriousness.

Formality and distance have their disadvantages as well as their advantages. They can make the argument seem objective and solid, but they can also alienate the reader. After all, distance means we are being pushed away. Our trust in a formal argument depends on our trust in the institutions it represents, like the government or academia. The reader may be disillusioned with these institutions or may never have trusted them in the first place. The reader may not believe that the topic calls for neutrality. We may wonder, too, what personal opinions and experiences and feelings the writer is hiding behind a mask of neutrality.

Trust through Intimacy and Informality

Over the last few decades, academia has become less wedded to the idea of objectivity and formality. In the humanities, as we have questioned the history of deferring to the white European male voice and considering it universal, many have questioned whether any observer can be objective. Even in physics, the discovery of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle introduced the idea that the observer affects the phenomenon observed and is not separate from it.

An alternate approach to trust involves connection rather than distance. We relate to the writer as a friend or loved one rather than an authority figure. The writer reveals their humanity and particular responses. A sense that the writer is being open with us and inviting us into an intimate conversation leads to trust.

Young woman animatedly talking to friend at table
Table Talk. Photo by Jessica Da Rosa on Unsplash under the Unsplash License.

An argument could be both intimate and formal, like a marriage vow, but that combination is rare. Usually, the more comfortable we are and the more we share about ourselves in an argument, the less formal the style. Conversely, the less formal the style, the friendlier and more connected the argument usually feels. Of course, for this approach to work, the writer has to make the intimate conversation seem appealing and convince us they are genuine in their openness. The writer’s approach and knowledge of how the reader will likely respond are key here. An informal and intimate approach can backfire if it comes across as presumptuous or invasive. The reader may be uncomfortable with the degree of closeness presumed.

So how does a writer create a sense of intimacy with a reader they will probably never meet? The more the argument can follow the style of a close conversation, the more readers may consciously or unconsciously go along with that feeling. Using an informal style will often help. That might look like casual language, the use of humor, some simpler or abbreviated sentence structure or occasional questions interjected. The most direct and obvious way to create the feeling of a conversation, however, is to declare it to the reader by using the “I,” the “we,” or the “you” instead of an impersonal voice.

The “I” of personal experience

Many of us have heard the advice that academic arguments should never use “I.” In fact, many arguments in academic journals nowadays do use “I” on occasion, especially in introductions and conclusions. They use it judiciously when the personal experience of the writer is relevant to the argument. In addition to offering an emotional connection, personal anecdotes give readers a sense that the author is a person who is reaching out to us as people.

The ordinary ‘I’

Using the first person “I” to talk about an experience that many people share can create a folksy sense of the author as a humble, ordinary person we can relate to. We might think that drawing attention to the writer’s ordinariness would undermine credibility. Of course, if we are looking to find out how black holes work, we know we need to turn to an expert. But if the topic is less technical and closer to everyday life, we may trust someone down to earth and easy to relate to more than we trust a distant authority figure.

The attention-getting “you”

When we use ‘you’ we are demanding the reader’s attention. We can think of it as taking the reader by the hand, tapping them on the shoulder, or grabbing their collar, depending on how forceful the tone is. Papers written for college classes can use “you” on occasion, especially to command the reader’s attention in an introduction or a conclusion.

The “we” that unites reader and writer

A writer may use “we” to convey that they are not only in conversation with the reader but on the same side or in the same boat. This approach is often combined with a reference to a shared identity, an appeal we will explore in the next section. It can also be used, however, to speak more generally about the writer and readers as fellow humans, as in the sentence “We often forget that our parents were ever new to parenting.”

Practice Exercise

Read the two student paragraphs below and reflect on the following questions:

● What parts help you to relate to the writer as a friend?
● What words or phrases show that the writer is being open with you?
● What words or phrases make this feel like a conversation?
● Which of these two paragraphs creates more trust through intimacy overall?

Rewrite one or more sentences in each paragraph to help create more trust through intimacy.

Paragraph 1:

Due to a recent pandemic, the whole world is experiencing something that has never been experienced in all of history. In order to prevent the spread of a very contagious disease, the whole world decided to go on lockdown. Now a worldwide lockdown has never happened before, and it has led to an interesting experience that is greatly changing a lot of lives. This virus causes many interesting results when studying human behavior. However, these results are also negative, which scares people when thinking of the possible economic recession. This paper will mainly cover how this pandemic affects crime rates. With everyone locked inside, it could lead to an increase in crime with fewer witnesses out. However, with fewer people to mug and not being able to go outside for no reason, this pandemic could also lead to a decrease in the current crime rate. In order to see how crime has been affected by the pandemic, it is necessary to analyze crime before and after the lockdown.

Paragraph 2:

We generate so much hate in this world. We seem to show more hate than love to each other. We put others down. We discriminate. We judge. We persecute. We hurt those who we see differently. We act before we think. Why do we hate? Hate is such a powerful word. We have all seen or experienced acts of hate occur within our lives. Whether it’s the terrorism we see on the news, or the bullying in our schools, it is extremely prevalent in every sector of our lives. The world would be a much better place if we had more empathy towards each other. Although hate and empathy can be very broad subjects, I want to focus on how giving to others can lead to less unhappiness and instead more empathy. To figure this out, we need to define what empathy truly means. We need to find the motives behind empathetic people, and then compare them with those who are hateful. We can study their respective motives and learn how to shift them.

Respect and Goodwill

We don’t tend to trust people who don’t respect us and don’t wish us well. Regardless of how formal or informal or how intimate or distanced the argument is, if the reader feels the writer is disrespectful and doesn’t care about the reader’s perspective or experience, the reader will lose trust.

Conversely, if the reader feels that the writer understands the reader’s perspective and uses that understanding to make the experience of reading the argument as straightforward and intellectually pleasant as possible, the reader will trust the writer more. Goodwill and respect distinguish a good argument from a rant which gives vent to the arguer’s feelings while ignoring what readers might need.

Handing You My Heart. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash under the Unsplash License

Creating Goodwill and Respect

Here are a few concrete actions writers can take to show goodwill and respect toward readers:

  • Express ideas in a clear and straightforward way. Making things clear often takes a lot of mental sweat. Readers generally do not appreciate having to do the work of sorting out unnecessarily convoluted sentences.
  • Guide readers through the ideas with clear transitions. Showing how each part of the essay relates to the next also takes mental sweat on the part of the writer. Readers will appreciate not being left dangling at the end of one paragraph, trying to figure out why the writer switches topics in the next and how the two topics are connected.
  • Tell the reader what to expect from the structure of the argument. If there will be several parts to the argument, readers may feel supported when the writer offers a clear map of what is coming. An example might be “I will first describe how neurons carry messages from the brain to other parts of the body before I explain how those messaging pathways can be disrupted in neurological disorders.” Telling the readers what the writer plans to do in first person is also called the “I” of method because the “I” is used not to describe personal experience but to describe the writer’s methods in the text itself. If there is more than one writer, as in scientific papers, of course, this would become the “we” of method. Of course, too much description of what the writer is planning to do can become boring and can get in the way of the momentum of the argument.
  • Anticipate and answer likely questions. This shows respect because the writer is giving the reader credit in advance for intelligence, curiosity, and critical thinking. One way to do this is to refer to the reader directly as “you,” as in “you may well ask.” It can also be done in third person, as in the phrases “some will wonder” and “this raises the question of….”
  • Correct misconceptions respectfully. If a writer is frustrated with popular misconceptions on a topic, they should give the reader the benefit of the doubt and politely assume that such daft misconceptions belong to others. We can refer to those who hold the misconception in the third person in a phrase like “some may assume that” rather than targeting the reader with a “you may be assuming that…”

Practice Exercise

Read the paragraphs below and reflect on the strategies the writer used to show respect and goodwill.

  • Are there parts that are expressed clearly? Are there others that can be revised for clarity?
  • Are there enough transitions to guide you?
  • Are there any questions that show that the author gives the reader credit for intelligence, curiosity, or critical thinking? Is there a question that they could add?

Revise one of the paragraphs to show more respect and goodwill.

Paragraph 1:

There have been many theories about the idea of nature in mental health. Many researchers have begun to investigate certain theories that focus on the correlation between our cognitive processes and the natural world. The most recognized theories are the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), the Stress Reduction Theory (SRT), and specific preferences for nature. The Attention Restoration Theory (ART), developed and popularized by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, professors of psychology at the University of Michigan, proposes that exposure to nature can help us improve our ability to concentrate as well as reduce stress through the automatic generation of physiologic responses. This can be attributed to the more relaxed sensation people may have when exposed to a natural environment. Stephen and Rachel Kaplan also proposed that there are four cognitive states on the way to restoration, which include a clearer head/concentration, mental fatigue recovery, soft fascination/interest, and reflection and restoration. In the first stage, thoughts, worries, and concerns are passed through the mind and are simply flowing through the mind naturally. During the second stage, restoration begins as the directed attention recovers and is restored. The third stage is focused on distracting the individual as they become engaged in low restoring activities, giving them time and space to calm down. Lastly, as a result of spending time in this environment, the individual can feel like they can relax and reflect on themselves and their goals. This is the most essential part of the restorative stage.

Paragraph 2:

One factor that social media primarily affects are sleep patterns. A study concluded that 37% of 268 young adolescents confirmed that increased internet use is associated with shorter sleep duration, later bedtimes and rise times, longer sleep latencies, and increased daytime tiredness (Woods 1). Sleep in a teenager’s life is one of the utmost important factors to healthy development. According to Better Health, sleep deprivation can cause an unhealthy mental state that can lead to depression, aggression, low self-esteem, reduced physical and academic performance, and poor decision making. This leads to a vicious cycle: the cell phone causes sleep deprivation, which then causes mental health issues, which are confronted with more cell phone use. This is problematic because they distract themselves with their devices and don’t realize they need professional help.

Moral Character

A part of our trust in a writer or in another person in any relationship is based on our perception of their moral character. Do they share the values we find most important? The word “character” has connotations of both firmness and fairness. A person with character stands up for their beliefs and is principled rather than self-interested. Note that there is some overlap between the trust appeal discussed above, which is founded in establishing respect and goodwill, and a trust appeal through good moral character. A basic element of good moral character is wishing others well, not ill.

Famous basketball coach John Wooden declared, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” Still, as humans, we constantly watch each other and assess each other’s character. A writer can seek to gain the reader’s trust by drawing attention to their moral character either directly or indirectly. In a direct appeal, a writer might describe their values, tell stories that illustrate their past moral actions, mention their reputation for good character, or refer readers to others who can vouch for them.

If a writer anticipates that some will question their character, they can present disclaimers, or rejections of others’ likely misconceptions. Imagine an argument that starts by asking how Robin Hood might be a relevant hero for today’s America. The writer would quickly need to clarify that they are not condoning stealing: “I would never argue that we should actually steal from the rich as Robin Hood did.” Such a disclaimer is usually followed by a clarification of their position which highlights their good character: “I do think that the character of Robin Hood is an inspiration for today’s advocates of a wealth tax to fund education and combat rising inequality.”

Direct references to a writer’s moral character run the risk of coming across as arrogant or presumptuous. More common and arguably more effective are indirect attempts to demonstrate moral character in the way a writer makes their argument. As Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor write in A Rhetoric of Argument, “We all know that character shows in what we say and do. It is equally obvious in what we write.” Honesty and reasonableness are two aspects of character that are especially crucial to demonstrate in argument.


Abraham Lincoln was known in his day and after as “Honest Abe.” His reputation as such, along with his accomplishments, formed the core of his image as an American hero. Probably nothing is more important to establishing trust than truthfulness and openness.

Even lies of omission can undermine trust. As readers, we want to believe that the writer is giving us a fair overview of what they know. If a writer fails to mention something relevant that makes them look bad, readers may well hear it from an opponent and consider the writer to have wrongly concealed it. Acknowledging points that actually hurt the writer’s argument can help to demonstrate openness and honesty. This includes a writer’s motivations, even those that involve self-interest. This may involve a disclaimer like the following: “It is true that I have an interest in maintaining high enrollment at our community college, since my job depends on it. But I do not think that is my main motivation for supporting the push to expand our offerings. I believe that the community will benefit when we have greater community participation in adult education.”

Another aspect of honesty is emotional honesty—the writer’s sincerity about the values and feelings expressed. If the writer has made an emotional appeal or an appeal to shared values, we as readers need to believe that the appeal represents the writer’s authentic feelings and values. If we feel we are being manipulated, we will likely recoil and resist both the emotions and the logic of the argument. How can we tell if a writer is sincere or not? There is no formula for this, just as there is no formula when we meet someone or listen to a speech and decide if the person is sincere. Readers’ intuitions will be shaped by subtleties of word choice and cultural expectations. One highly dramatic emotional appeal or declaration of values may come across as exaggerated, and another may come across as an earnest expression of the writer’s strong convictions. In my own opinion, the best way for writers to create an impression of sincerity is to be sincere, not just about their feelings but about the degree of intensity of these feelings.


It is our reason that allows us to make and evaluate arguments, so it comes as no surprise that writers want to come across as reasonable. Of course, as we have seen in earlier chapters, writers must actually make reasoned arguments or readers will notice their logical flaws and lose some trust in them. But to trust a writer, readers also need to have the impression that the writer is reasonable as a character trait.

Here are some ways writers show themselves to be reasonable:

  • Responding to alternate perspectives with respect. Even when you do not see any merit in the opposing argument, As Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor put it, “Without conceding to the opposition, you can show your audience that you treat other positions with respect, understanding, and even kindness.” We can show empathy for the motivations or perspectives of others even if we ultimately judge them to be misguided.
  • Showing fairness toward alternate perspectives. We see reasonableness in the ways in which writers deal with challenges to their ideas. Do they summarize the challenge accurately without distorting it to make it seem worse or weaker than it is?
  • Showing openness to possibilities that may challenge the writer’s expectations. There is some overlap here with honesty as discussed above.
  • Making concessions when they see some validity to an opposing point.
  • Showing moderation. A writer can send the message that they are not an extremist by pointing out and disavowing more extreme positions.
  • Admitting uncertainty. As Jeanne Fahnestock and Marie Secor put it, “When you honestly find yourself somewhat uncertain on an issue, even after thinking through some arguments, you can shift into a lower gear by admitting your own uncertainty, the tentative nature of some of your conclusions, your openness to new ideas.”

Note that too much moderation can come across as wishy-washy. Good moral character also requires conviction and backbone. A writer must balance being open and self-critical with being willing to take a stand and defend it.

Practice Exercise

Find a speech by a president, former president, or presidential candidate and reflect on how the speaker attempts to establish good moral character in the speech. Which of the strategies listed above do they employ? How well do these strategies work to convince you of the speaker’s character?

Attributions: From 9.3: Distance and Intimacy shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative). 9.5: Respect and Goodwill is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative). 9.6: Moral Character is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Mills (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative).
Editing and re-mixing by Dr. Tracey Watts and Dr. Dorie LaRue as part of the LOUIS Interactive OER for Dual Enrollment project, 2022. It is licensed under a CC-BY NC-SA 4.0 International license.

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