Let’s Shake on It: The Importance of Trust in Business

handshakeJune 26 is National Handshake Day. For the small business owner, it should remind us that our word and handshake must be absolutely trustworthy. Without trust, there can be no commerce.

Remember the story about George Washington and the cherry tree? You’ve also probably read somewhere that it didn’t actually happen. However, I recently read an account that says it probably did happen, but not in the way that you’ve heard it recounted in the past.

I want to relate this today because it has everything to do with commerce and trust. Stick with me for a moment.

The real story

First, no one ever said that Washington “chopped down” a cherry tree with his hatchet. An early Washington biographer, Pastor Weems, said that the future president damaged the bark of a neighbor’s cherry tree with his hatchet. This, of course, can kill the tree. If you ever messed around with a hatchet in your yard as a kid, this story probably sounds authentic. Further, all the other details in Weems’ account of Washington are unchallenged, so there’s a good chance this detail is true as well.

Aside from building up the legacy of our first president, why was this important? Simple: trust was critical in Washington’s time because commerce completely depended on it. You see, there was very little currency floating around the colonies in those days. Items were bought and sold generally with 20 percent in cash and the rest on account.

Merchants had to be sure of their customers’ trustworthiness for commerce to happen. This is why it was important for young Washington to establish his honesty. Had he slinked away and denied his actions—when he was probably the only likely culprit—it would have been a stigma that followed him around for years.

Extending a hand

Offering a handshake as a greeting is polite. Extending your hand to seal a promise should signify a true commitment. Businesses will function more smoothly and with more confidence when handshakes carry meaning.

As a small business owner, you probably understand this. While the major corporations keep legions of lawyers busy drawing up contracts that cover every possible contingency in a business relationship, you know the value of plain talk followed by a handshake.

And the best way to honor National Handshake Day is to continue that level of trustworthiness.

(By the way, that glimpse into young George Washington comes via “The Education of George Washington: How a Forgotten Book Shaped the Character of a Hero,” by Austin Washington. It’s a good read.)

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Image: Handshake Man-Woman by Flazingo Photos, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.