Friday, May 15, 2009


"The words of the Greeks are born on their lips but those of the Romans in their hearts." - Cato the Elder

Honesty or lack thereof presents itself as an issue every day when working in the Afghan culture. A delivery of humanitarian assistance to the head man of the village will often ensure that the head man and his family benefit, while the rest of the village gets nothing. If I buy a cow, gravel, or a pickax from a local vendor, I can be assured that my Afghan counterpart is going to shake down the vendor for his cut. I'm tempted to blame these types of dishonesty and the general corruption in this country on poverty, but in reality the poverty is probably a symptom rather than a cause of the disease of dishonesty and lack of fair-dealing and even-handedness endemic to this place and most other cultures and countries around the world. I'm not sure Afghans and Iraqis are capable of caring about their fellow man, as demonstrated in this article. I read the article in a military newspaper the other day about Iraqi soldiers stealing wheelchair parts destined for crippled Iraqi children. The article got me thinking about honesty and how it's viewed in different cultures. I'm now more referring to lack of manipulativeness, deviousness, and insincerity as opposed to just outright thievery like what those soldiers did. Americans are a very honest people and are recognized and appreciated as such worldwide. Americans' honesty with ourselves no doubt has been very instrumental in our country's development. The ability to honestly face and deal with problems in a straightforward manner is certainly more conducive to growth and progress than having to mollify egos and worry about saving face, as is the norm in other places. It's ironic that our citizens would be lauded for honesty, while the country as a whole is lambasted when we publicize our failings. But then it's much easier to point the finger and hide your own potential embarrassments than face your problems head-on.

I've heard it said that while we Americans spend all those years in school learning to read books, Afghans spend those years learning to read people. Guile is a highly prized characteristic in other cultures, from the Islamic world, to the Chinese and Sun Tzu, and persons lacking it are often considered naive or simplistic. I think it's true that Americans, in general, are often lacking in guile when dealing with people. Honesty is a habit for us, and habits are powerful forces on behavior.

The question is why. Why are Americans so forthright and honest in comparison with the rest of the world? I think the Christian religion has had something to do with it, though many other Christian countries are much less honest as a cultural trait. We're a rich country that doesn't need to steal to make ends meet (though certainly rich people do steal, see nearest politician for example), but our honesty goes much deeper than that, and I think it's got something to do with our individualism. Our Bill of Rights guarantees individual rights, often superseding the rights of the individual over those of the community. Constitutions in other countries don't necessarily see it the same way - the French Constitution often subjugates the rights of the individual to those of the community.

Americans are permitted and even encouraged to go their own way. We respect an individual's freedom to live life his own way. When people are free to express themselves and make their own decisions they are free to be honest with themselves, and by extension, others. Americans don't necessarily have to mold themselves to their peers in order to be accepted, as is common in cultures less tolerant of differences. Other cultures foster deceptiveness and manipulativeness by not allowing people to express who they really are.

I try to comport myself always in an honest manner, but knowing the how other cultures view the topic of honesty has certainly helped me deal with people from those places. And never more so than now than here in Afghanistan.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post on honesty. I do mission work with the Philippines, and just can't figure out how over many years, they still want "the fish," but know matter how much you invest to try to teach them "to fish," after one leaves, they go back to the same routine. Your article was insightful, and...affirming.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your post and moreover thank you for your service to our country and our way of life.