The Honor System In Practice

img_2433.jpgDo you feel guilty walking to the check out without having weighed your fruit and veg? If you’ve lived in some parts of Europe (and aren’t from those parts) you’ll know what I mean: in many places, supermarket customers are responsible for weighing AND stickering their own produce with the price. And watch out if you forget – there’s often no way to do this at the cash register.

In contrast to the system in the US (and probably a growing number of other countries), where you’re more likely to win the lottery than walk off with free produce, in many countries, the message is “We trust you to weigh your own carrots and not slip in a few extras afterwards.” Sometimes weighing the fruit is the responsibility of a staff member, but in my experience this is more to speed up slow-moving customers than monitor – though they sometimes do knot those bags tightly!

Public transport tickets often function on a similar system, to some extent anyway; passengers should validate their ticket when they get on the bus or tram, or when they enter the subway and after a certain amount of time the ticket “runs out” and is no longer valid. There are definitely random spot checks though to make sure people are doing this, so it isn’t completely “honor system,” though how often this happens and how strict the inspectors are depends on the place. Ironically, I wasn’t caught on the handful of occasions I took public transport without a ticket in a pinch – in a hurry or without change for a ticket – but I have been caught no less than three times when I’ve simply made a dumb mistake, most recently in Budapest.

Adjusting – or re-adjusting – to the honor system is obviously not the most remarkable change you’ll have to make moving abroad, in contrast to, say, a different language or cultural norms. But it can be a funny one. You might not be surprised that I like to speculate about what the presence of the honor system says about a country or culture – will a country that incorporates the honor system have more honest people – or less? Does use of the honor system imply a more trusting culture? I have to say this is one area where I really have trouble coming to some conclusion, except to note that, even in private language schools, the honor system is rarely utilized during tests. Does your host country use the honor system in these ways or others?