How to avoid paying bribes

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post.

At lunch today I had a nice chat with a lawyer friend about paying bribes. Now, I’m not about to comment on this issue in China (except to say that, for me at least, it hasn’t come up).

But I’ll share a bit of my experience in Russia and the former Soviet republics.

Again, I’m not often asked for bribes. When I am, I don’t pay them. End of story.

But I’ve known colleagues who had to pay through the nose for everything. Every single stamp, ticket, piece of paper, or anything else they needed — the bureaucrat’s hand would come out. Even for simple things like hiring drivers or translators, they were forced to pay way above the going rate.

Some dealt with this problem by bargaining hard, others by sending local assistants to negotiate on their behalf. Others just resigned themselves to pulling out their wallets.

And I have other colleagues who are never asked for bribes. Instead, they get favors from bureaucrats — favors that the bribe-paying guys wouldn’t even dream of getting.

What’s the difference? In my exprience, the difference comes down to how much they like the people they’re dealing with.

Let’s talk about Alex, for example. Alex was a freelance television journalist of European origin. Short, balding, funny-looking.

But he genuinely liked the people he met in the war zones. He liked the bureaucrats, he liked the mass murderers, he seemed to like everybody. Occasionally, we would get together socially with the people we were writing about and he would always participate in all the toasts, tell funny stories — and basically act like he treated everyone like an equal.

Everybody we met wanted to do him favors.

You don’t have to be a born salesman to do this, though.

Another colleague, shy and self-effacing, had a “shucks, golly gee, can you help me out here?” vibe coming off of him. And people did help him out. He wouldn’t rush up and hug people and pat them on the back, he would hang back shyly, but you could still tell that he liked the people he met.

Imagine you’re a big black man on an elevator and you’re covered in tattoos and carrying a gun and a tiny white guy in a nice suit gets on. (Those of you who’ve been there know exactly what I mean.)

If the little white guy cowers and hides in a corner, or puffs himself up, or otherwise acts like he’s scared of you and doesn’t like you, you’re going to be pissed off. If you’re nice, you won’t show it, but it would be pretty tempting to say “boo!”

But if the little white guy is relaxed, smiles, maybe compliments you on your guy, you’ll feel warm and fuzzy towards him.

When American journalists go out and cover wars in third world countries, we’re all the little white guy in the elevator. Including those of us who are big and black and covered with tattoos. We can’t help it. We’ve got money and little notepads, and they’ve got resentment and lots of guns with conversions.

It can be hard to like mass-murderers. And it can be hard to like bureaucrats.

But if you get past the murdering and the paper-shuffling, we’re all just human.

Here are some tricks to help bring down those barriers:

* Do something purely social with the bureaucrats.
* Find a personal connection: does one of their kids go to school in the States? Do you know anybody there? Do you have any friends in common? Do you have common interests? Do you like the same movie or music?
* Do you have the same things? Do you hate the weather? Do you hate George Bush? Do you hate athlete’s foot? Do you hate your boss?
* If you’re single — maybe they know someone they can introduce you to. If they’re single, maybe you can introduce them to someone.

You don’t have to do all of these things with every bureaucrat you meet. In fact, you don’t have to do any of these things, with any bureaucrat. All you have to do is know that you could, if you wanted to. Making friends — even once — will help you change your attitude. You will know that if you made an effor to reach out, that you would see them as human. They will pick up on your attitude.

If your attitude is “I will never think of you as a human being — you are nothing more to me than a lousy functionary/mass murderer/racial or ethnic stereotype” then you don’t get very far.

So when you first arrive in a new country, do your best to get rid of that attitude. Make friends with locals. Make friends with local bureaucrats — even if not the same ones you’ll be dealing with.

Your attitudes will change. You will give off those little, unconscious signals that you see the other guy as an equal, that you think he’s okay, that if you got together you might wind up friends.

And that makes all the difference.

Signing off in Shanghai,