Who People Trust - by Profession ; A New Poll Suggests That People Esteem Those Seen to Place Others' Needs above Their Own Interests

Article excerpt

The aquarium in Alcala's Auto Body lobby is filled with crawdads, tiny "water dog" eels, and water so clear you'd swear it was mountain air. On the wall are framed testimonies to what clients call one of the truly "clean" auto-care operations - literally and figuratively - in a metropolis where such businesses are more often known for bilking customers.

"Thank you for the most professional and expert care you took of my 1990 Blue Toyota Tercel," wrote a client to owner David Alcala. "You went over and above the call of duty."

The plaudits on Mr. Alcala's smudged wall reflect a rarity in American life these days: customers who respect the honesty and integrity of the people they do business with.

In an age of seeming self-interest and cynicism, Americans often view everyone as the equivalent

of a used car salesman. Or perhaps that should be the equivalent of a lawyer or politician, particularly since "Monicagate" and now "chadgate."

In fact, Americans tend to rate professionals with a consistent standard. Those who are seen as selfless in motive - nurses, teachers, clergy, judges, police - rate high. Those who are perceived as putting their cash registers before a customer's interests come out low.

A Gallup poll released yesterday, while reflecting subtle shifts of opinion from previous years, confirms that same general pattern. At the lowest end of the list are some usual suspects: car salesmen, insurance brokers, newspaper reporters (not including this one). At the top: nurses, pharmacists, veterinarians, (newspaper reporters, just this one) - well, you get the idea.

"It seems to be [that] we rate professional people high if we perceive them to be treating others for the benefits those others might accrue, rather than as a means to their own selfish ends," says Richard Ellsworth, a management expert at the Claremont Graduate School in California.

Many people agree with those on the who's who of scoundrels list. "Absolutely and totally do I feel car salesmen, insurance salesmen, and HMO managers are out to do the least for you and the most for them," says T.J. Schwartz, a sports columnist and owner of his own collectibles shop. "And you can put auto mechanics at the bottom as well. They're in it for nothing but the scam."

If it's true that sports columnists never exaggerate, Mr. Schwartz's assessment is not something Mr. Alcala wants to hear. At least, though, he didn't go after jewelers, which is another group that often doesn't come out well in ethics surveys - all that cheating on carats and stuff. It's that kind of talk that makes Chuck Lire, owner of Riverton Jewelers in Sherman Oaks, Calif., want to nick someone with his diamond cutter. …