If you grew up in the West and aren’t a wealthy elite or member of government, you probably have zero experience with bribery. This guide will bring you up to speed on a necessary skill for the more chaotic parts of the world.
Putting things in perspective
Bribery is always illegal and can be offensive if broached improperly or to the wrong person. However, the world is far from ideal. In certain countries, bribes are unavoidable – either to facilitate business or stay out of jail.
Ethically speaking, bribery is not good. You shouldn’t jump to engage in it and thus encourage it. It might be convenient and exciting to bribe a border guard to skip the queue – but think about the traveler that comes after you. They will face a border guard that has grown to expect bribes.
Deciding to take the legal and social risk of bribery should be seen as a last resort out of financial necessity or personal self-defense.
“You’ll catch more flies with honey than with money”
Fortunately, most things in the world get accomplished just fine with simple, reciprocal human relationships.
Being friendly, social, and a good person to know is the best way to smooth out bumps you encounter in expat life and business. Remembering someones birthday or helping them fix their roof after a storm can be more effective than a suitcase full of cash.
You’ll find that most people will jump at the chance to help you for free. Generally the poorer the people, the more likely you’ll experience this.
The rest of this article is for when all else fails…
Bribery is a dance
Good manners and managing legal risk dictates that both parties cautiously approach the topic (usually).
Asking for or offering a bribe is similar to taking off a girl’s bra.
If you try to unhook a girls bra five minutes after meeting, it won’t go well. However, if you ask the same girl on a date, and you both reciprocate interest in an escalating fashion, she will likely welcome you playing with her breasts later that evening.
How to notice if someone is hinting that they want a bribe
These are some common tells that I’ve either directly experienced or have learned from other travelers.
They avoid a definitive “yes” or “no” and instead hint at possibilities and difficulties:
It is possible, but…
… it is difficult…
… it isn’t easy…
… there might be problems…
…it will take a long time…
Often, they are, not so subtly, telling you it is possible, but you need to make it worth their while to take care of the “difficulty.”
They randomly bring up the topic that they don’t take bribes – when you never even hinted at it.
This is their subconscious desires leaking out into their speech. A clear conscience doesn’t need to preemptively proclaim innocence.
If someone does this, you can be very confident that they will accept a bribe later while lying and saying, “I don’t usually do this…blah blah blah.”
They make references to their money woes magically at the same time that you encounter a situation that may be conducive to a bribe.
“My cow just died…., the economy is bad…, etc.”
They talk about “fees” that you have never heard of or don’t make sense.
The internet has made this one a bit more difficult since you can usually look up this information in advance. However, it is still pretty common.
How to indicate that you want to pay a bribe
You might read this and think, “Why would I want to pay a bribe?”
Sometimes it is far easier and cheaper to pay a bribe than do go through “legitimate means.” Sometimes a bribe is the only way.
When I dropped out of a foreign university, I was facing deportation because the university was going to revoke my student visa.
They speed at which they were coming down on me caught me off guard. I was going to have to buy a plane ticket at the last second, right before Christmas – the prices were ridiculous.
Instead, I was able to bribe the lady in the visa processing department, so she would wait a month to start the visa revocation paperwork. I paid her $40 and saved about $1000.
Tips for broaching the topic
Suggest that ‘someone’ told you it was possible, if you “paid a fee.”
You are just repeating something you claim to have heard. It gives the official the chance to say, “Ahhh…yes…a fee…” or “No, you are mistaken.” No harm – no foul.
“If I could avoid this problem, it will save me money….”
Bringing up “saved money” suggest that that there is built in value for the person helping you. It isn’t terribly subtle but still has deniability.
“I am a businessman…I like to find ways to solve problems…”
A bit more ballsy, but may lead to a higher price – “businessmen” tend to have money.
“Is there some ‘fee’ I can pay to fix this or speed up the process…?”
This is not so subtle, but it is better than bluntly saying, “Can I bribe you?”
Bribe etiquette is about keeping things discrete.
1. Don’t bring up bribery too fast and don’t assume everyone is corrupt.
Unless desperate, you should wait until you see strong hints that they are looking for a bribe.
2. Maintain privacy
Don’t speak incriminatingly around the individual’s co-workers, friends, or family. Wait until you have an opportunity to speak one on one.
3. Avoid incriminating terminology
Never use phrases that suggest a quid pro quo. Say something like, “Here is a gift for your son’s birthday” instead of “Here is $100 for the building permit.”
Speaking plainly is only advisable when it is clear the conversation is private and the other party has already been blunt. (Such as speaking with a corrupt police officer on the side of a road.) Then you can drop the charade.
4. Keep the secret
The corrupt official might be a good person with a family and reputation. Their life could be ruined if you exposed them. Sometimes officials are assholes, but sometimes they are really doing you a favor. Remember that they probably need to spend a large portion of your bribe paying off the people above them. It totally depends on the culture or circumstance.
5. Keep negotiation friendly
If you disagree on price, stay professional.
In poor countries, people can sometimes throw out absurd prices just because they have no frame of reference for what a Westerner considers a lot of money.
I’ve successfully counter offered as much as 90% lower than their original “wishful thinking” price. The key is to not act shocked, and especially don’t laugh (this could cause someone to “lose face”). Instead, furl your eyebrows, nod your head, and explain that you are not rich. Then politely offer a realistic number.
1. Discretion is the better part of valor – This is real life, not a movie
Only engage someone if they are following the same etiquette as I outlined above.
2. Control the location and timing of the discussion (if possible)
This is important for serious meetings.
For example, invite someone to a restaurant for lunch where such a discussion might take place.
By setting the place and time you accomplish two things.
First, it allows you to case the location before hand to make sure that discrete conversations are possible (Either a really quiet place or a really loud place.)
Second, you have the element of surprise so the other party doesn’t have time to arrange surveillance, set you up with the police, etc.
3. Record the conversation
If prudent, enable the audio recorder on your phone. This gives you some insurance in case the person later tries to extort you. On the flip side, you are creating self-incriminating evidence, so be careful.
You are especially vulnerable in foreign countries, don’t be stupid and threaten someone with a recording unless you have your security in good order first. Life is very cheap in some places.
Don’t pay lump sums up front for something that gets completed in the future or is an ongoing process.
I knew a girl that paid a guy $10,000 up front to marry her so she could get citizenship (a 3 year process). He took off after a month with all her money. She should have paid him $300 a month over the three year period.
If paying off the police. (For example if you get caught committing a crime.)
The most important rule in the third world is, always PAY THE FIRST, LOWEST LEVEL COP YOU ENCOUNTER. Prices go up as more and higher ranking police get involved.
My friend got caught in Cambodia smoking weed. He didn’t seal the deal quickly with the first cop. Soon, three more showed up like a feeding frenzy. He ended up paying $100 each. His hesitation cost him $300.
Resist paying bribes that are not absolutely necessary.
It is UNCOOL to reward this bad behavior and it emboldens these officials to hassle travelers that come after you.
If you are unsure about the appropriateness of a bribe, consult trusted local friends. Their advice can be invaluable.
Lastly, bribery is a spectrum that ranges from a required daily hassle to extreme illegality. Don’t be stupid. The places with the most corruption usually have the worst prisons.