I am not a blogger! I'm a human being!

Location: Poland

Monday, October 31, 2005

Corruption and Poland: Please, Blue Fairy, I want to be real! (part three of ???)

Recap: In dealing with bureacracies, the everyday person should avoid using logic or pleas for compassion at all costs and instead, realize that the Achilles heel of all bureaucracies is enforcement. I'm also using a tennisy metaphor for the bureaucracy (see previous post).

Here, it helps to look at things in a larger context and remember, if you're not Polish, that the system of enforcement here will have different weaknesses than in your home country.

In the US, generally, the best choice is to take a detail-oriented approach and make the line judge see that smudge on the line and convince them that your serve just barely touched the line. An alternative, is to take advantage of American phobias of confrontation and make interactions with you exhausting and unpleasant in hopes that they'll give you the benefit of a doubt, just to get rid of you (John McEnroe used this throughout his real tennis career, it didn't make him liked, but it was probably more effective than not).

Neither of these approaches work very well in Poland. On the whole, Polish people avoid attention to detail the way vampires avoid the dawn and relish the noisy confrontation. Foreigners lose most arguments in Poland, because their emotions too often get the best of them. Then they're labelled hysterical and ignored. (While arguing in Poland, volume and vehemence are fine, even encouraged, but you should never get so caught up in the heat of the moment that you can't share a joke or cup of tea with your opponent.)

What does work here? Several things, only a couple of which will be discussed here, but they all revolve around becoming a real person to the bureaucrat. If you can learn to argue in Polish (not just in language but in style), then go ahead. You don't have to be nice to be real. One of the enduring mysteries in Poland is how much more willingly people will do things for people they know and actively dislike than they will for people they don't. The flipside of this is how difficult it can be for people to work together when they agree about most things (see arguments between PiS and PO), but that's another topic.

Another method is to bring the lady at the desk some chocolate or something from the bakery. Not everybody can pull this off (I can't and don't try). If you do try it, it should seem spontaneous and not calculated and if you do it clumsily it will fail and get you labelled as a hopeless fool (in which case it can sitll work if you can inspire maternal feelings). I've never used the box of chocolate gambit myself, because I'm convinced I'd couldn't pull it off, I'd sound like I was saying: "Here's your BRIBE! Please, don't forget to take your BRIBE! Do you have your BRIBE now?"

And it's important to remember that this is not a bribe, you're not going to get a positive decision because you left some pączki on someone's desk or be denied because you didn't. The chocolates are a symbol (in a culture that relies heavily on symbols) that you've given a little thought to what might give the lady behind the desk a little pleasure. That is, you've made her a real person in your mind. Once you're done that, she'll often reciprocate.

There are limits as to what this will accomplish, it won't get you of trouble if your transgression is serious and it won't get you a positive decision if you've really screwed up. It can get the bureaucrat to use whatever discretionary power they have in your favor, so that if you missed the deadline by a few days (but not a few months) or it might get your application on the top or bottom or in the middle of the pile (whichever is of more help to you). It can also lead to a favorable interpretation of dubious information or take into account your motivations (if good) and overlook trivial mistakes. In other words, it can save you many frustrating trips to the same place and time and effort, freeing up your personal calendar for important beer drinking.

Is this corruption, I don't think so. All my reasoning (or lack thereof) will have to wait for another time, but I think the best argument is that the really corrupt do exist, and none the foregoing will work if you've come across a corrupt official (or a whole nest of them). In Poland, they especially cluster in anything having to do with cars (buying, registering, importing or driving them).Your only options are a) paying up b) working around them.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Corruption and Poland: Damned bureaucrats (part two of ???)

In honor of Poland winning Transparency International's Miss Corruption Europe award, I'm looking at the (to me) gray areas, trying to find the border(s) between getting by and corruption. Here, I'm focusing on something I tend not to think of as corruption, but which many foreigners in Poland (and some Poles) do see as corruption.

As is probably true the world over, members of the bureaucracy in Poland are utterly deaf to pleas based on logic, fairness or sanity. I've worked in a bureaucracy and the only way to exist inside one and keep your own sanity is to treat it all like a big game, let's say tennis. You, the member of The Public, are serving and your opponent is the System. The bureaucrats that you're liable to deal with are the line judges and Those Who Make The Rules are the umpire (who's usually sound asleep but occasionally can be roused to make a final decision).

The line judges don't make the rules or establish where the lines are to be placed and are not responsible for the outcome of their calls. The rules don't have to make sense (any more than the placement of lines on a tennis court is guided by rational principles). The applied linguist Suzette Haden Elgin has a lot more on this in one of her books (I'll add that in an update).

Once you realize all this, you have several options available. You can muddle on the same as before and hope for the best. Ignore what you know and waste a lot of your time by arguing with the line judge that the baseline should be placed five centimeters further back (and lose, of course). You can expend a lot of time and effort in figuring out how to get a higher percentage of your first serves in (but remember, the lines are liable to move in mid-serve). Or you can look for loopholes, not in the rules, but in the system of enforcement. Human beings don't stop being human just because their job usually requires it. Remember this and take sustenance from it. Every system has weaknesses in enforcement and if you're not a bureaucrat at heart yourself, it's a good idea to know what those are.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Corruption and Poland (part one of ???)

Poland, where I live, has recently been named the most corrupt country in the EU by Transparency Internation (no link, they don't need it). In expressing some skepticism about all this at warsawstation (no link because I'm too ignorant to know how) I was asked some questions that made me think. Rather than answer there, I'm going to turn them into a series. I have no idea how long it will be. Given my track record so far on this thing, there's no telling how often new installments will happen.

I think there's a difference between corruption and the normal give and tack of getting through the day in any society and there's a big gray area in the middle. I hope everybody can agree that a cop taking a direct payment instead of issuing a deserved ticket is corruption and a cop letting someone off with a warning (after some conversational give and take) instead of issuing a deserved ticket probably isn't. But again, there's a big space in the middle where things aren't so clear.
I'll start all of this off (as I usually do) with a digression:
In the Silent Language, Edward T. Hall describes a 20 year conflict concerning speeding tickets in a small Southwestern US town with mostly Hispanic, but some Anglo residents. A Hispanic traffic cop enforced the ludicrously low speed limit ruthlessly and routinely gave out tickets (with a hefty fine) for going even one mile over the limit. The Hispanic residents rarely actually paid the fine, they usually knew someone in the courthouse who could make it go away. The Anglos couldn't and/or wouldn't make use of acquaintances or family members that way and paid the fines but thought there should be some leeway in enforcing the law, that only people going well over the limit or otherwise driving recklessly should be fined.
In other words, one system (Hispanic) initiated the legal process over very minor infractions, but the process only rarely reached maturation. The other system (Anglo) was more ruthless (or upstanding?) when the process was actually initiated but expected that the process would only be initiated on serious, rather than trivial (here undefined) infringements.
Which system is more corrupt? Which system is more likely to engender corruption?

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Qualifications, shmalifications

I finally realized what the Bush appointment process reminds me of - Melrose Place.
In order to keep the cast members interacting in ever new combinations, characters were routinely shuffled between the same three or four workplaces. Someone might go from being a fashion designer to working in a bar, while wondering whether to go into advertising (guess which agency?!) or get a job in the hospital.
In that same proud Heather Locklear tradition, W seems intent on shuffling the 12 people he's met in his life in as many jobs around him as possible.
What a bizarre thing to be happening in the Whitehouse in the 21st century ...

Starting up (again)

I started this thing up just when real world considerations meant I couldn't do anything with it for a while. For the time being I'll reprint some comments I've made elsewhere, just to keep them from foreclosing or anything.