I was raised to believe “a deal is a deal” and that means once you agree on something with someone — written contract or not — that part of the deal is done and settled and to go back later and try to renegotiate is tantamount to going back on your word.

Where I grew up going back on your word marked you as a liar and made you untrustworthy and you were ostracized from the community with glares and silence. You felt your bad behavior in your bones and it was a long while before your word was trusted again. Does keeping your word still matter today?

More and more it seems people will swear on their lives and on their children in one moment only in the next breath to take back everything they just said without remorse or afterthought and if there are implied ramifications that their lies now have consequences the liar becomes indignant and haughty and, many times, mean.

I have seen this happen on the playground and in the boardroom and it makes one wonder if a legal document is the only thing that has weight of a forced morality today? When did “a deal is a deal” become a bad thing to be trampled and mocked?

34 Comments

  1. Word out of the mouth is dead. Word on paper rules. Unless, of course, you’re an adjunct then the paper is only good if you have enough students. They can cancel you on a day’s notice. If you back out a month before classes start you never work for them again. Inequity in the deal lives.

  2. AdjunctX!
    Nice to hear from you again. I am glad you are still around and haven’t rolled off the table yet. 🙂
    You’re right about contracts only being binding for an adjunct if the stars and the moon align. Sometimes you don’t even get a contract until after classes start and then usually the salary is lower than what was previously sealed on the deal. Unions can help. NYU is much fairer now to adjuncts than they were before unionization.

  3. Keeping one’s word is seen almost exclusively, I suspect, as a virtue. Like many virtues, it has become suspect in an age in which one moral compass is considered as good as any other. This is unfortunate since keeping one’s word — what I refer to as promise keeping — is essential to the creation of trust. We cannot hope to exist in a complex society if every interaction between individuals must be ratified via written contract. Trust is important, then, to insure that society works. It is created in large measure by the seemingly insignificant act of keeping one’s word even when, or especially when, that is an exceedingly difficult thing to do.

  4. Heya Gregg!
    Your comments are fascinating and well-argued.
    I am with you all the way on trusting each other but in an Age where trust is seen a lack of value (winning at any cost is its modern-day replacement value :)) we need to shrug off the complacency of accepting a loose morality and forging a stronger one.
    I believe that teaching needs to start at home with the parents and then put to practice out in the world.
    We can’t expect society as a whole to teach individual trust but we can build value back in society that trust is more precious than lying.

  5. Dave!
    I know there are people who believe that the reason there are more divorces now than before is because women have been empowered to not silently take abuse any longer and they are able to legally get themselves out of bad marriages. I, however, tend to agree with you that back then things were simpler and less complex and that people were easier to satisfy.
    Your point about technology creating the impersonal leads me to argue that that the very expansion of our lives where nations are now intimate neighbors and we have more strangers in our lives than faces we recognize allows a greater flexibility in values to make them temporary and context-sensitive and since none of us share the same reality that causes a lot of great problems in the universal specific of how we behave with each other. You cannot enforce what refuses to be remembered or pinned down.
    A lawyer friend of mine told me hardcopy contracts generally aren’t worth enforcing under $5,000 because the other side knows that for you to collect you’ll have to pay at least $5,000 to hire an attorney to get your money and no one wants to go through all that time and effort to end up at even.
    Unfortunately, I find that to be especially true in the writing world and I’ve been bitten by that $5,000 line a couple of times in my life. “So sue me!” is the new “I give you my word.” We are bound by a sad time and I now usually don’t bother with contracts under $10,000 :).

  6. Well, this scenario doesn’t really have to do with a deal per se, but it does go to show how some people will lie to cover their ass.
    A coworker of mine, who technically was my superior for the past few months, has been lying to her boss on being able for our department to hit our deadlines. Her mismanagement has cause our company to be on the verge of losing a big account, but instead of being fired, a new position has been created for her in the department she has wanted to be in for more than a year.
    My husband works at the same company as I do and was recently in a meeting where she outright lied in front of him, her boss and several other coworkers about how the account was being handled. Needless to say, my husband was livid because her lie could lead others to blame him and the other guy who works in his area.
    Fortunately, when he confronted her boss, it became apparent that The Powers That Be now knew what was going on and were going to let her dig her own hole.
    Here’s what pisses me off to no end: (1) She’s being rewarded for screwing up with a job of her choice, but I was transferred out of the writing position I had tried so hard to get because the company was consolidating. When my displeasure was noticed, I was told that I was “being watched” for unsatisfactory behavior and performance and that I could be let go. (2) In February, other coworkers were fired simply because they were part-time or needed a different schedule or actually had the nerve to tell the truth that they thought we should approach these changes a different way. This girl, however, almost cost the company a huge account, and she got what she wanted.
    The truth is, Corporate America is shady all around. Verbal agreements mean nothing. The only way to survive is to keep a paper trail of all contact or have a witness – anything or anyone that can cover your ass.
    Ok, I’m done ranting. 🙂

  7. Carla —
    I feel sorry for your miserable job position but several things sing out from your story.
    1). You deserve better.
    2). The woman who keeps getting what she wants despite her failures has talents or secrets the company needs to protect more than her losing a big account. She obviously has some insider knowledge the company is terrified of having the rest of the world discover. They are keeping her quiet.
    3). You and your hubby need to be appreciated for your talents and I hope you will both soon be able to find work that better suits your values and work ethic. It must be fun to work together, though! I bet you’re rarely lonely for lunch. 🙂
    I am reminded of the demise of a major disabled services agency in the NYC area. It had not only survived, but thrived for 100 years. Then the guy who ran it the last 30 years, and built it into a social and political powerhouse, was tossed out in a power struggle over missing money or misplaced money or something like that and the person picked to replace him shocked the entire community.
    That “insider” person had no leadership qualities or financial/fundraising background or even basic people skills. She ran the agency into the ground hard in under two years. What took a century to build was rotted from the inside by selfishness, broken promises and a cold, dark, heart. When she was finally “replaced” she moved out of state (run out of town!) and the grave dancing began all over Manhattan!
    The celebration was short lived, however, when everyone realized she left behind a beloved agency in ashes and it never made it back. It was folded into another agency that wanted the cachet of the original agency’s name.

  8. Hi Tim —
    Thank you for all your excellent comments. Your words are helping improve this blog moment by moment!
    I think the core issue here is responsibility for actions. Today few parents set up consequences for bad behavior so children are raised to honor their own internal whim because, they believe, no one will bow to dispute them.
    We will soon have a whole nation of the entirely self-centered and others-neutralized and it will be a great comedy of errors to watch in my old age as the world is ripped apart from the inside.

  9. I was just thinking the same thing a few days ago — primarily because a friend and I had “made a deal” and I got screwed on the deal. As to be expected, he got indignant and eventually mean intertwined with bouts of self-deprecation (a la “I know. I’m an asshole. I’d hate me too…”) and eventually the ever-popular “I don’t have to listen to this!” when I tried to explain that a deal is a deal.
    You nailed it dead-on. Where I come from a deal is a deal, plain and simple. And if you shake hands on it and look each other in the eyes? Well, then it might as well be written in blood and carved in stone somewhere.

  10. “Thanks for the note and you need to cut that friend out of your life! You must not tolerate the unworthy because they cannot be trusted.”
    Thanks for the advice, David. He’s in another state so I can choose to tolerate him or not. God bless the Internet. 😉
    Along with “a deal is a deal”, I’m also a big believer in “give them enough rope to hang themselves” and karma in general. Sure, I got screwed over in that deal, but eventually the pattern will repeat itself, they’ll screw over the wrong person and wind up much worse for it. Will I be there to smile? Probably not, but at least I know the odds are in my favor.

  11. I agree. I come from a country where people are very untrustworthy. They trust nobody. They don’t even trust themselves any more. I stand by what I say, and as such I often find people being surprised by it; and then I often find myself saddened because others don’t act the same way too.
    By the way, in one of your replies you say that one risks his personal integrity if he chooses to stand on a particular side of the fence. That is not true. You might end up finding you were wrong. But being wrong does not necessarily mean being dishonest, ergo you can be wrong and still be a man of integrity. The real reason why it is not true is because if you don’t choose, you have no integrity. Integrity is the consistent practice of virtues such as honesty, productivity, justice, etc. To practice those, you have to make choices – both moral and practical. In order to be just, you sometimes need to make a choice on whether a person is or is not guilty for say a crime. There is no middle path here. Your end conclusion might be wrong, but if you have seen the evidence, considered it all and if you have found no inconsistency with one of the verdicts, then you can honestly make that verdict without the breach of integrity. Productivity works the same way. If you ignore the fact that you are losing money with a certain product, you may go bankrupt. So you must make a choice – do you improve the service or do you withdraw it from market. You cannot go through life without making choices and judgements. Judge and be prepared to be judged.