The High Price of Dishonesty

My local supermarket offers customers the convenience of self-service checkouts where you can experience first-hand the reward of the confirmatory ‘beep’ as you scan your items one-by-one.

I like these self-service checkouts; not only have I learned to derive a great deal of satisfaction from scanning my own jars of pasta sauce across the little precision beam of red laser light, but it means I can circumvent the droves of customers who actually want to stop and chat to the checkout girl. Regardless of how pretty the checkout girl may be, I have no desire to talk to her. For me, grocery shopping isn’t a social event or an opportunity to flirt; it’s an operation to be completed with the rapidity and ruthless efficiency of a meticulously planned SAS assault on a terrorist HQ – something the self-serve checkouts help me to achieve.

There is one problem with these self-service checkouts though, a problem that turns the whole affair of using them into a bit of a love / hate relationship: they seem to have quite a low opinion of mankind’s capacity for honesty and integrity. On some days, their preprogramed paranoia can reach such dizzying heights that they immediately order you to remove from your shopping bag each and every item that you’ve just carefully swiped – an undercurrent of mistrust that is compounded by a red alert bar that flashes across the LCD touch screen commanding you to, ‘Wait for the assistant’.

But yesterday I thought I’d caught the self-service machine in a more reflective mood, a mood in which it might be inclined to give its more loyal customers the benefit of the doubt.

Not a single act of resistance did it put up as I swiped jar after jar, bottle after bottle, packet after packet. It increasingly seemed to me, with one unchallenged swipe after another, that this particular self-service checkout’s faith in humanity was on the up. Its little AI chip had finally learned the futility of constant suspicion and mistrust, and it had decided to abandon those negative character traits both for its own peace of CPU as well as the greater good of the world.

Of course my pleasant fantasy was short lived; as I placed my final item in my shopping bag that all too familiar dictate, ‘Remove the last item from your bag and wait for the assistant’ flashed across its little LCD screen. With a passive acceptance of the machine’s overriding authority, I did what I was told and with a roll of my eyes burrowed into my bag and obediently pulled out the object of all that paranoia – a stem of fresh broccoli.

There I patiently stood and waited for the assistant; the offending item held up clearly in view whilst I simultaneously tried to adopt a casual demeanour that relayed to the world that I wasn’t the type of person who’d try to pilfer a quid’s worth of broccoli.

As the checkout assistant / inquisitor approached, I beamed my warm ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’ smile at her; and then nonchalantly showed her the offending broccoli. As she puzzled for a moment, I pointed to the onscreen proof confirming that I had in fact swiped the item and therefore, was innocent of all machine generated accusations.

Did my warm, kind hearted smile and my obvious sincerity pay off?

No…Much to my annoyance, the assistant began rummaging through my shopping bags with all the authoritarian impunity and zeal of a customs officer probing various bodily orifices for a cocaine filled condom. ‘This is the item here’ I snapped at her in irritated defence, ‘the broccoli, the broccoli…it’s not in the bag, it’s here in my hand’.

To me, her out of hand dismissal of my innocent explanation and her insistence on conducting her own little private investigation by rooting through the contents of my shopping bags was a direct affront to my integrity. Yes, I fully expected the self-service checkout machine to treat me with all the respect of a newly qualified Gestapo officer eager to prove his worth, but I expected more of a fellow human being…I expected her by default to see me as a trustworthy, honest guy who just wanted to get home to cook his dinner.

Her lack of faith in my intrinsically good nature left me feeling belittled, hostile, abused and dismayed.

As I drove home, I mulled over the contents of the scathing letter I was going to write to the supermarket manager (which was pretty much going to be a self-righteous lecture on the importance of treating customers with respect, as well as a reminder of the fact that any intrinsic vulnerability of self-service checkouts to petty theft provides no justification for adopting an all pervading attitude of suspicion).

But more profoundly, I wondered to myself, ‘What sort of world is this, where everyone treats everyone else with such suspicion and mistrust; where everyone’s default behaviour is to assume guilt instead of innocence?’

As I seethed on this point for a few minutes, as well as whether I really did look like the kind of guy who’d steal a broccoli, an incident that happened just the day before flashed through my mind – hitting me with the answer with all the force of a lightning bolt.

The Curry Incident

As is often the case on a Sunday night (the day before Monday’s supermarket incident), my girlfriend and I decided to treat ourselves to a takeaway, a bottle of wine and a DVD. Mulling over our choices, we settled on a curry; mainly because one of the local Indian restaurants is currently offering a pretty enticing 40 percent discount on takeaway meals – or at least they would lead you to believe.

Having settled on our choice of ethnic cuisine, we headed on into town, perused the menu through the backstreet restaurant’s window and went in to place our order; where with a greeting and a smile the waitress took our order and totted up the total. Although the total she arrived at didn’t seem quite right to me, I nevertheless handed over my cash, took my change and without looking stuck it straight in my pocket before sitting down to wait for our food to be prepared.

One of the many quirks of my brain is an innate calculator like proficiency with arithmetic, and given a moment to gather my thoughts I realized that my initial suspicions were in fact correct, she’d overcharged me by a pound; hardly an amount that would break the bank it has to be said, but as with many things, it was the importance of a principle that was at stake, not the material value of that principle.

In my usual good natured way (and without a hint of suspicion that she’d in any way attempted to defraud me of that little pound coin) I went back up to the counter to point out the mistake. She re-totted up the total and yes, with a little bit of arithmetic help and an unnecessarily laboured reference to the menu, she finally conceded that she had indeed overcharged me by a pound. Rather begrudgingly, she gave me back my pound coin and offered a muttered, half-hearted apology.  I took her resistance to admitting the error to be one of pride, nothing more, and sat down triumphant with my reclaimed shiny one pound coin – the very coin which represents the common denominator of the UK fiscal system.

Less than a minute after my mini-victory, another couple, closely followed by another, came in to pick up takeaways that they’d been wondering around the streets for 20 minutes waiting to be prepared. The first, on receiving his order said to the girl, ‘by the way, you only gave me two pounds in change…it should have been three.’

At that moment, my naive gullibility was shattered. I realised that I hadn’t been the unfortunate recipient of an innocent error, but instead a victim of a systematic con which lured customers in with the promise of a discounted meal and then clawed some of the ‘discount’ back through overcharging or short changing. With the words of the next customer , ‘Excuse me, you overcharged me too!’ corroborating my suspicions for a third time, reasonable doubt went out of the window…this waitress or the restaurant were on the take.

Although I didn’t say anything, the girl’s discomfort at my head shaking condemnation was obvious as she first tried to rather aggressively tell the subsequent customers that they were mistaken, and when that tactic proved to be futile, resorted to a similarly unconvincing attempt to explain away two more ‘mistakes’ to two more short changed, but equally adamant customers. Like me, both those customers argued the point like a dog with a bone and finally won back their rightful change in full. The waitress, conceding a triple defeat, sulked off through a door marked ‘private’ not to seen again.

I left that restaurant feeling that a basic trust had been betrayed – a common everyday trust (that you’ll be charged the correct amount) which is so taken for granted that it’s probably very easy for unscrupulous restaurant owners to exploit to their own Machiavellian ends. Having three mathematically inclined customers in a row who were frugal enough to care about an overcharged pound was, probably for this particular restaurant, sheer bad luck – a freak occurrence with the same probability, but not stroke of luck, as winning the lottery.

But the story doesn’t end there. When we got home and I finally had the sense to check the change which I’d slipped into pocket without glancing at, let alone checking, I noticed she’d short changed me there by the best part of a pound as well. That waitress had taken advantage of yet another trust – to give the correct change. A trust which is again, so ingrained in society that we often never even look at the change we’re given. We simply assume that in return for our custom, we’ll be treated with fairness, honesty and respect.

Lessons to Be Learned

That night as we munched away on our substandard curry (which in all honesty, they should have paid us to eat) I pondered the lessons to be learned from the restaurant’s overcharging / short changing escapades.

Not surprisingly, I vowed that I would never again be caught out in such a way; that regardless of how miserly it might appear, I’d always mentally calculate to the penny the cost of my prospective purchase before I went to pay and that likewise, I would always check my change to the penny before sticking it in the abyss of my pocket. I was, I surmised, too trusting in this particular regard. This time it had only been a couple of quid at stake, but failure to learn from the lesson had the potential to be far more costly in the future.

Whilst we whiled away the night watching our equally disappointing rented movie and drinking our fortunately good bottle of wine, I also used the experience as an opportunity to see things from that restaurateur’s perspective – to use it as a tool for developing my own tolerance and empathy.

Although I vowed never to eat there again, because obviously her actions had been underhand and exploitative, reflecting on her circumstances I nevertheless could understand why she would resort to such tactics. When I considered that she was running a small struggling business which probably only stayed afloat through the allure of massive discounts (the meagre profits from which no doubt supported several generations of the same family) my anger turned to pity.

From her perspective she probably thought that anyone who could afford the luxury of eating out could afford to lose an extra quid or two. And maybe the aggregate takings of all those pilfered pound coins were the only thing separating her entire family from total poverty or maybe even losing their business and their home.

Although none of that could ever make her fraudulent short-changing ‘right’, that perspective shift certainly increased my tolerance and relieved my anger – and therefore I rationalised, turned the whole event into a positive learning experience. A learning experience that I was glad I’d had the opportunity to savour.

The Lightning Bolt

But it was after my supermarket interrogation the following day that the real lesson from the curry incident hit me, like I said, like a lightning bolt.

It dawned on me that whilst people often resort on an individual level to deceit and dishonesty in order to gain some upper hand, ultimately those tactics hurt everyone – including the perpetrator, regardless of whatever short-term advantage the perpetrator may have gained.

Following the curry incident I had vowed never to be taken advantage of in a similar way again – that, like Ebenezer Scrooge, I would account for every last penny of my financial transitions from that day forward. The restaurant’s dishonesty had therefore, bred and nurtured my own distrust in people and society as a whole. Likewise, the supermarket assistant’s intrinsic mistrust of me – that I really was a professional broccoli thief probably on the run from Interpol – was likely born out countless previous experiences of customers who she had found deviously slipping the odd unpaid for item into their shopping bag.

The stark truth I realised was that regardless how insignificant any act of dishonesty may appear to the perpetrator (for example, the short changing of a customer by a pound or the petty pilfering of one item on a long shopping list), the ramifications of the sum total of all those dishonest acts on society are staggering.

The 19th Century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in his play Prometheus Unbound that, ‘All spirits are enslaved which serve things evil’. Through any act of dishonesty, however slight, we contribute to and enslave ourselves in an all pervading attitude of mistrust, suspicion and background paranoia – one that infiltrates every fibre of society. We enslave ourselves to the evil of a lesser existence through our individual acts of self-serving dishonesty.

One thing I am firmly convinced of is that the attainment of a better life is only achieved through positive thoughts, emotions and actions. Negative emotions such as anger, hatred, and resentment never lead to individual happiness; likewise dishonest, selfish or aggressive deeds never build the mutual cooperation, trust and respect that lie at the heart of our interdependent world.

And make no mistake we do live in an interdependent world; however independent we may believe we are it is all but an illusion. We rely on one another for both our very existence and our quality of life – for our food, for our work, for our income, for the clothes we wear, the cars we drive and the homes in which we live; for own intellectual and emotional development, for friendship, support and for love. Not one of us can survive without that interdependence; to coin yet another famous poet, John Donne, ‘no man is an island’.

I hope from this, you don’t think I’m moralising – that I’m saying, ‘acting dishonestly is wrong, don’t do it’. I’ll leave that lesson for the religious (which is not a dig) and the self-righteous (which is a dig).

What I am saying is that putting aside all arguments of morality, dishonesty is a fundamental negative that never leads to a positive. Regardless of individual ethics therefore, dishonesty is indeed ‘wrong’ on a practical level.

A single act of dishonesty breeds and nurtures a distrust from which we all suffer. You may well gain in the short-term, but the damage done to the fundamental trust that forms the fabric of society is immense; less cooperation, the proliferation of a dog eat dog mindset and the erosion of mutual respect undermine the integrity upon which we all rely.

I’ve written a lot recently on the virtues of maintaining a positive mindset; of how focusing on the good in others can lead to greater trust, cooperation, tolerance and respect – all the positive factors that help to oil the cogs of both our own lives and society as a whole. But all that I’ve written previously (and in fact all that I’ve written in this article) is not to suggest that you should adopt an attitude of unrealism – a rose tinted fantasy that assumes that people always act in a positive way.

Dishonesty, deceit, unfairness, injustice in one form or another will always be with us – and there will always be people who regardless of the suffering or damage they cause, will rely on such negative tactics for their own self-serving purposes. To live in ignorance of that basic fact makes us all vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

I am suggesting however, that we all keep in mind what’s at stake – the own happiness and self-fulfilment, as well as the society through which we can achieve those things. No law or legal system, no matter how efficient, can hold together a society through dictate alone – it takes the active commitment and cooperation of each of us to forge the trust and integrity that form the basis of society.

So no, don’t be naive, be realistic – count your change before you put it in your pocket. But through example – by always acting with integrity and honesty – each and every one of us can do much to negate the need to do so. If there’s one guarantee in life it’s that like breeds like. If we act unscrupulously we can guarantee that others will act in kind, if we act with integrity, likewise others will follow suit. And to that end it’s a simple case of asking ourselves in which of the two worlds we’d rather live.

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