Is giving a gift or tipping someone to earn their service bribery? Is it corruption? Is it greasing the wheels or is it merely showing respect for your business partner? The answer to that question lies beyond a mere association with a single word such as “bribery” or “corruption” or “coercion” and is buried in the cultural differences of countries around the world and the realization that what is “corrupt” in the eyes of one culture might very well be everyday business to another.
Take, for example, the giving of gifts. It is common practice in many Asian cultures for gifts to be given as a way of smoothing relations and facilitating a successful negotiation with your new business partners. In Japan, this is a time-honored tradition and is expected at the first meeting to symbolize friendship, respect and the anticipation of a long lasting and fruitful relationship. To not give someone a gift would be an insult.
On the flip side of this coin is the United States. If you ask the average person from the U.S. what they think about giving a gift to a potential business partner before the deal is struck, you will hear one word touted above all others: bribery. In 1977 the U.S. government passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which specifically prohibits such gift-giving from taking place within U.S. borders, both by national and foreign companies or entities operating on U.S. soil. As a result the entire culture as a whole has a completely different view towards what is a common and acceptable practice in Asian cultures.
Tipping is another cultural activity which can be viewed as corruption. The U.S. is one of the only countries in the world where you are expected to mandatorily provide a 15 to 20 percent tip to restaurant workers and bar staff, simply for them performing their job. And if you ask the typical worker in the U.S. service industry what they think about those who don’t tip, you’ll likely receive a snarky reply about what an asshole that person is for not having tipped them for their service.
Then you have tipping in Bulgaria, for example (and throughout much of Europe), where it is completely up to the individual and is not, in any way, mandatory. Leaving a tip in Bulgaria only happens if the service is exceptional, or if you are a large party and the waiter in question is serving your table for several hours. Tipping “just because” never happens. Instead, restaurants pay their employees actual, livable wages.
In Latin America, however, tipping goes beyond merely the service industry; it is part of the culture and applies to every aspect of life. You tip the grocery bagger, the guy who helps you park your car by waving you in and out of the space and stopping other traffic, the women at the laundry mat, the staff at the restaurant, the cable guy when he comes out to fix something, the carpenter and so on and so forth.
Tipping is also used for things such as if you want the air conditioner repair technician to arrive today, not in three days. Or if you want the tow truck to get there within the hour, not in six hours. Or if you want your paperwork at the local notary’s office bumped up to the top of the list. If you want something done quickly, you grease the wheels with a little something extra. The same thing applies in many Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia and Romania.
If you want something done in the United States or the United Kingdom more quickly than normal, you pay an express fee. Want a package shipped priority mail? Pay the express fee. Want to drive your vehicle in the commuter lane? Pay extra. Want your paperwork expedited? Pay the express fee. If the average American wants something done above and beyond, they pay an express fee, also known as a tip, or a bribe in other countries.
But if you ask the average U.S. traveler what they think of being asked to pay extra for extra service while vacationing down in a Latin American country, for example, you’ll largely receive a resounding cry of “That country is so corrupt! I’m always being expected to pay a bribe to get anything done!” And if they have to pay extra for something like getting the cable guy to show up today, not in a week, to install the fiberoptics line for Internet, you’ll hear nothing but a continual stream of “Gods, Mexico/Argentina/Colombia/etc. is so corrupt; I can’t get anything done unless I pay these guys a bribe!”
Similarly, if you talk to many Western expats or travelers who have spent time in Eastern Europe you’ll hear the same types of comments. While tipping isn’t necessarily mandatory, greasing the wheels to get everyday things done on time is a natural occurrence. Nothing ever gets done “right now” in any country, unless you are willing to motivate people in the right direction through a bribe, tip or a gift: also known as an express fee.
Call it an express fee, call it la mordida, call it a bribe, call it a tip; it all amounts to the same thing. If you want something done quickly, right now, today, and if you want to inspire someone to give you service above and beyond, you pay a little extra. It’s greasing the wheels. It’s motivating the person to go beyond the call of duty with a little extra something. It’s an age-old tradition that goes back to the dawn of civilization.
Maybe it’s cash. Maybe it’s a six-pack of beer. Maybe it’s an MP3 player. Maybe it’s a favor for a favor. The reality is that these systems exist in every single country on the planet, it’s simply that the cultural viewpoints that are a part of a person’s limited exposure to other cultures limits their ability to perceive anything beyond what they’ve been taught since they were children.
What is corruption in one country is common policy in another, and what is a common business practice to someone in Japan, for example, would see you jailed in the United States. Despite the fact that it exists in the U.S. just as prevalently as it does in Japan. Complimentary meals for celebrities, free first-class airfare for politicians, complimentary accommodations when someone wants to sweeten the pot to get you to sign the paperwork on a real estate deal. Someone offering to buy you a six-pack of beer to finish wiring the garage today rather than tomorrow.
It comes down to the old saying, “When in Rome.” A 14 year old teenager can legally drink a beer in Bulgaria, but is required to be 21 years of age in the United States. Which country has the moral high ground? The reality is neither; both are countries filled with human beings who all have the same blood running through their veins, it’s simply the cultural point of view that changes depending on which country you hail from.
Part of being a world traveler is accepting cultural differences, and part of that acceptance is the realization that you need to travel without assumptions regarding the cultural policies towards gifts, tips, bribes and greasing the wheels. It is your responsibility as a global traveler to operate within and according to the various cultural traditions and customs of the local governments and leave your assumptions at the door.