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.


Blogger ~JS said...

nicely put and i can relate...but just think about it...if everyone chose to acknowledge the humanity of clerks the way you suggest, just imagine the irony -- sign above the clerk windows: "Please, don't feed the clerks."

3:44 PM  
Blogger beatroot said...

And Mike, see Warsaw Station's post about creating a collective blog...interested? It would only require about one post a week (more if you want) and about the same size as this one, but on any current affairs topic you like (or even history, arts etc...)

5:14 AM  
Blogger Michael Farris said...

Flattering, but I can't promise much of anything just yet. I'm behind on a bunch of work and I'd feel even guiltier putting it aside too often. I'd be glad to be a sort of irregular second string contributor, but I'm avoiding timetablish commitments at present.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Gustav said...

Well then michael, at least you should come out for P3 on Saturday night.

I appreciate your accurate description of bureaucracy in both the US and Poland, and the interesting comparison to tennis. Unfortunately, you completely missed the point when you said this:

Is this corruption? I don't think so.

You seem to base your conclusion on the idea that a box of chocolates won't get you a positive decision, but just sentences earlier you admit that it could affect enough to put your application in the most beneficial spot - which can often mean the difference between getting a positive decision and not.

That such things even help make it corruption. My application for this or that ought to have no bearing on how nice I am or for whom I buy chocolates. You're saying that this is not corruption because it's small is like saying fibbing about feeding your vegetables to the dog is not a lie. Small or large it's still a lie, small or large it's still corruption. That these minor bits of dishonesty are so pervasive only proves how indemic the problem is - and that some won't call it corruption proves how difficult this problem will be to solve.

Also, your claim that the "line judges" have no influence over the rules is too simplistic. The line judges often have to interpret the rules, and that's where the arbitrary power - and corruption - comes in. Is it out or is it in? Hmm - I don't remember! Whether I saw it land in or out of the court may just depend on how much I like your chocolates.

These things snowball. We can't ignore what's at the bottom and decry what's at the top. We have to be equal-opportunity corruption-obliterators.

But human nature is human nature, and we won't win if we simply try to "convince" people that what they're doing is wrong. What must be done is to make the rules simpler, clearer, transparent, widely-known and -understood, and equally applied.

Chocolates or not.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Michael Farris said...

gustav, I think I understand what you're saying and I'll address it when I get to rule orientation (in a day or two if I'm lucky).

If you're really impatient google that phrase and 'hofstede' together to get an idea of where I'm going.

1:57 AM  
Blogger Gustav said...

michael, do you have an email contact where I can reach you? My e-mail address is I and the folks at p3 would like to send an invitation your way.

10:02 AM  
Blogger demonsthenes said...

I've been reading all of these..Your write very smoothly, its good to see these things addressed in the manner in which they were.

By the way, do you happen to be VP of

8:19 PM  

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