To Bribe or Not to Bribe, Is That the Question?

Why is it that good, well educated, and right living people, can have such strange ideas about cultures? It seems that we North Americans tend to consider anything in another culture wrong if it differs from our own in ways we don’t like.

Languages, being part of cultures, differ from country to country. We wouldn’t dream of criticizing Japanese for speaking their unique language. Nor would we expect to live and work in China without learning Mandarin. In the same way, a Canadian or American company that wants to work in Mexico would expect its people to learn Spanish and behave according to generally accepted Mexican customs.

So why this huge outcry recently about Walmart bribing its way to success in Mexico? Walmart built over a hundred stores in Mexico in a remarkably short time. The accusers pointed at funding trails that showed large amounts of money had been spent in getting the building permits. Their argument was, money plus building permits proves bribery.

That may be true within Canadian or American culture, but is not at all true in the cultures of many other countries. No one disputes that money changed hands. The question is, “Was this money given in order to get some official to do something illegal or unethical, or was it simply a culturally expected tip?”

This picture has nothing to do with the subject of this column other than show what Jo and I looked like about the time of the driver's license story.

When I was a first-term missionary, I remember getting dozens of documents ready so I could renew my Brazilian driver’s license. My folder had it all: police clearance statement, certificate of proficiency, physical and psychological tests, driver’s test successful completion record, passport with permanent residence visa, receipts for all licensing fees paid, etc. Each document was notarized and well within the application deadline.

As I walked away with my thick folder of documents to catch a bus to town, I met our neighbour, a veteran missionary.

“Pray for me,” I said, “I’m turning in my final documents to get my driver’s license renewed.”

“Okay, I will, I know what a hassle that can be. Are you sure you have every paper you need?” he asked, reaching for my folder. He paged through all my papers, gave back the folder, then pulled out his wallet.

“Here,” he said, “As he handed me a note of Brazilian money worth about five dollars. Put this into your passport. It helps to move things along.”

I took the money, put it into my passport and later that morning handed in my folder to the clerk behind the wicket. She slowly paged through all the papers, riffled through the passport, saw the money, kept on looking through the papers, then looked up and said, “Yes, everything is in order, you can come in tomorrow morning and pick up your license.”

True to her word, my license was ready and I was good to go. When I paid back my missionary friend I asked him, “So what was that money for?”

“A tip,” he replied, “officials, like taxi drivers and waiters are not well paid and they expect a tip.”

“So it wasn’t a bribe?”

“No, of course not. As Christians we do not bribe, it breeds corruption and is wrong.”

“So what is the difference between a bribe and a tip?” I asked, still feeling slightly guilty.

“Very simple. A bribe is payment to an official so he will do something illegal, unethical, or immoral. For instance, when someone has failed his proficiency test he may offer to pay the inspector to pass him anyway. That is a bribe. Whereas what you did was give the clerk the culturally expected tip so she would do her job. It is no different from giving a tip to a barber or a baggage handler. You were not asking her to do anything wrong, you simply let her know you appreciated her work on your behalf.

Knowing the culture is so vital. When Jo and I were Bible translators, we needed to understand not only the language and the culture of the Canela people, but also the culture of Palestine in Jesus’ day and of Greece, Turkey and Italy in the time that the apostle Paul wrote his letters. As North American businesses like Walmart spread around the globe, and as millions of people from every culture in the world come to North America, we need to recognize that all cultures differ from each other, all have some good aspects and bad ones. Just because it is different from our culture doesn’t mean it is bad. Besides, no culture is perfect. No, not even our own.

Some societies value time and money, others are strong on relationships. Some promote fierce individual independence, others value interdependence. Some degrade women, others honor the elderly, yet another exploits children.

All cultures differ from each other just as individual human beings differ. The bottom line is, in the same way that no individual measures up to God’s standard of behaviour, no culture is faultless. We all, individuals as well as cultures, need God to redeem us and give us new life.

4 thoughts on “To Bribe or Not to Bribe, Is That the Question?

  1. A truly incredible articulate explanation of the ethics, principles and cultural factors involved. I finally understand what is happening and have some guiding principles to deal with situations in the different cultures I encounter. Very well written. Thank you so much.


    • Thanks, James, for your wholehearted expression of appreciation for this blog post, both here and in your direct email. You encouraged me and did it well!

  2. Great insight into cultural differences. I almost feel like I should be slipping you a ten dollar bill or something! 🙂 Great post, Jack.

  3. Tips of any size are always appreciated, Glynis. Click on my PayPal button to “slip me that $10” 🙂

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