084In 1993, I spent six months living in Moscow, Russia with my husband, Pavel, a Russian native (and co-author of this blog).  While enamored of the historical beauty of Red Square and the generosity of my Russian in-laws, I was also shocked at the lawlessness that pervaded every day life.

As Pavel and I drove around Moscow, we were pulled over by police, sometimes several times in a single day, for no apparent reason.  Each time, Pavel would slip the officer a few rubles to allow us to go on our way without citation.  I remember feeling both disbelief and a sense of righteousness that such things never happen in the U.S.   I was proud of America for our organized and law-abiding social structure.

A photo-essay in yesterday’s New York Times, “For Russians, Corruption is Just a Way of Life,” reminded me of my Moscow experience.  The photographer notes “Most Russians have grown so accustomed to a certain lawless way of life that they have come to view corruption as ‘Russia’s own special way.’”

Initially, I was revisited by my sense of superiority about American society, but upon mindful reflection, it occurred to me that we simply have a different way of doing things here.  While we might not pay off a police officer who pulls us over, we are likely to act with obsequiousness and extreme politeness in an attempt to lessen the punishment.  Similarly, to get ahead in the workplace, it is not unusual to see what we like to call “sucking up” – and such behavior is often rewarded in our culture.  

Maybe bribery isn’s so uncommon here, it’s just that our currency is different.  Would you rather suck up to get ahead or pay your way with cold, hard cash? When you ask yourself that question, you begin to realize the vast psychological difference between the two.

You might say, “Wait a minute.  Sucking up is really harmless, right?  It is certainly not as bad as bribing someone with cash.”  I disagree.  Sucking up is psychological bribery. The bottom line is that whether you get ahead through monetary bribery or psychological bribery, the resulting rewards are not based on any merit, skill, or moral behavior.

It also occurs to me that to pay your way by sucking up costs you integrity; to pay your way with money costs the recipient integrity.  And for the person on the receiving end, wielding your power to score a little extra cash seems much less sociopathic than extracting evidence of your power by requiring your subordinate to play the sycophant.

*Reference:  For Russians, Corruption is Just a Way of Life.  New York Times, August 19, 2012.

Creative Commons License photo credit: meiling_bedard