An Irreverent Answer To An Old Ethics Question

Question Markby Michael Friedlander, Featured Contributor

[su_dropcap style=”flat”]A[/su_dropcap] PITHY QUESTION I was asked a while back…

It was mid-1979…

After some brief stints in London, Zurich, Paris and Montreal, I’d found myself in Los Angeles, where I’d joined a fancy Century City law firm. I accept that this might sound interesting and even mildly glamorous, but its not. No, not even close…

Six months later, Tim, an old English client, called me. He said he was thinking of setting up an office in Los Angeles and that he had a question or two for me. Did I have some time for him?

Without waiting for my answer—and without any pleasantries, he launched his question at me:[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″] What’s the biggest difference, Michael, between doing business in Los Angeles compared to where we’ve done business together before—London, Paris, Hong Kong, Zurich or Macau?”[/message]

My pithy answer to pithy question…

Like the smartass I am, I responded to Tim’s question by asking him if he wanted the long or short answer. With a chuckle, he said he wanted the short one— which didn’t surprise me a bit. OK, I thought, if short is what you want, buddy, short is what you’re gonna get. “Its about ‘communication,’ ‘ethics’ and ‘fairytales’…” I said.

I felt quite proud of myself: My smartass persona had remained intact. I thought I’d pull his chain by ending the conversation there and then. I told him it had been really nice talking to him and that he should please send my best to his wife. Just as I was about to say “G’Bye,” with another chuckle, he screamed at me: “Hold it! You’re not getting off that easily…” He said he didn’t understand. Weren’t communication, ethics and fairytales strange bedfellows, he asked? Yes, I agreed, they were…

Strange bedfellows Part 1: “Let’s start with communication…”

As I assured him that I hate generalizing, I also offered to make an exception in this special case—just for him. “Oh, thank you kind sir,” he said. “Please do!” I then took a deep breath and plunged into an answer that I know you’ll probably slam within minutes of reading this…

“The Los Angeles gentry,” I suggested, “seem to me to communicate quite differently from the folks we’ve dealt with together in the past. While the words used are the same, they just don’t seem to mean the same here in Los Angeles… Before I get too serious, here’s one admittedly silly example:

When someone here asks you how you are or how you’re doing, understand this: They really don’t give a damn. It’s a little like an Aussie saying ‘G’day, mate.’ It means nothing. Squat. Nada…”

Time for a more serious example, I thought—

“But here’s a business example that’s a tad more serious…

In Los Angeles, the words that the business-gentry uses are actually EXACTLY the same as the words you’ve been using in your travels outside the States. It’s just that those same words somehow mean something quite different here. Are you following me, Tim?”

His silence was deafening. I continued—

“In London or Paris or Hong Kong,” I explained, “when someone tells you they have the rights to a particular widget, you know what this means, right? It generally means they have the rights to that widget. Nothing too profound here, right? If I’m going too fast, I’ll slow down…”

He said nothing, so I continued—

“In Los Angeles, however, when someone tells you that they have the rights to that particular widget, exactly the same words actually mean SOMETHING ELSE.

Here is what those same words mean in Los Angeles—and I would note that these words do NOT mean that they have the rights to the widget.

– First, the words can mean that THEY KNOW SOMEONE WHO HAS THE RIGHTS to the widget…

– Second, they can mean THEY KNOW SOMEONE WHO KNOWS SOMEONE ELSE WHO MIGHT KNOW WHO HAS THE RIGHTS to that widget….

– Or third, they can mean that THE KNOW SOMEONE WHOSE MOTHER PLAYS BRIDGE WITH A FRIEND WHO HAS A KID WHO HAS A ROOMMATE WHO HAS A FRIEND WHO THINKS HE KNOWS WHO MIGHT HAVE THE RIGHTS to the widget…

I said that I had hoped he’d noticed that when people here say that they have the rights to the widget, it doesn’t mean they actually have those rights…

I offered him a final example: I explained how almost everywhere in the world where we’d done business together, we were used to understanding that non-communication can often be an effective means of communication.

I said that, if a friend had introduced us to someone in Europe who was making a serious representation to us in the presence of our friend, we might well be tempted to interpret our friend’s silence as an affirmation of what we had just been told.

In Los Angeles, my experience was quite different. Here, my advice would be to resist that temptation with every fiber in your body. This is because silence here often means absolutely nothing. Why? Because, people here won’t necessarily speak up even if they know that the person is lying outrageously to you. And one reason might be that they may think they might benefit personally from the deal you are discussing. So, in that case, why would they EVER consider torpedoing it?”

Strange bedfellows Part 2: “Now Let’s Add A Pinch Of Ethics…”

I then moved on to the subject of ethics and warned him that this might be a little difficult for me to explain—or for him to grasp. I explained that the very same folks, who almost certainly regarded themselves as ethical, were the same people who would tell you that they owned the rights to the widget even when they didn’t. Why was this?

“I think the answer might lie in the fact that Los Angeles is the city of the ‘deal’… Everybody here seems to want to be involved in a deal—either directly or indirectly, no matter what. And because nobody wants to lose an opportunity to be a part of a ‘deal,’ the last thing they will ever want is to close any doors to a possible opportunity to be part of the deal.

So, when they tell you that they own the rights to the widget when they don’t, they don’t see themselves as being dishonest or unethical. Instead, they simply see this as a harmless misrepresentation—a perfectly legitimate way of potentially staying involved in a possible deal.

They also don’t see the misrepresentation as really hurting anyone. I think they see it as akin to crossing an intersection when the traffic light is yellow.

So, what’s my conclusion?

What you and I might regard as a lie and unethical behavior, our Los Angeles friends might well not regard as being unethical. At worst, they will see it as a minor white lie...”

Strange bedfellows Part 3: “Topping It Off With A Fairy Tale…”

I began by asking Tim if I was right in recalling that, in all of past our business dealings together around the world, the subject of fairy tales had never EVER come up? He agreed, but sounded astonished…

I explained that, for me, a fairy tale is the sometimes-extraordinary entanglement of fact and fantasy. This then forced me to ask this question whenever someone makes a pitch to either a client or me: “Can I identify and separate fact from fantasy in what we’re being pitched?”

While I accept totally that this had made me much more cynical than I typically might have been, I’ve nevertheless found this to be an invaluable tool. I explained why—

“My experience here in Los Angeles is that people seem to believe that the more conviction with which they say something, the more likely it is that we’ll believe what they’re saying.

Because of fairytales, I now believe the opposite: The more conviction I hear, the less I’ll believe. So, for example, when someone tells me that they can guaranty I’ll get my investment back in a year—or they’re 500% certain they’re right about something, I’ll make sure the door doesn’t hit me in ass as I escape.”

I said I hoped this made sense to him, but I still asked him to bear two things in mind. Firstly, and as unlikely and improbable as this may seem, I could be wrong. And, secondly, he should always remember that advice is worth what you pay for it, which, in this case, was nothing…

Postscript—and a question…

About a year later, I bumped into Tim at a bar. As we locked eyes, he rushed towards me. I felt paralyzed. I half-suspected he was going to take a swing at me, but, instead, he put his arm around me and confided in me…

Apparently, my 1979 observations had miraculously been confirmed by his very own experiences. As he thanked me, I asked him if I could send him a bill. He answered by offering instead to buy me drinks for the rest of the evening. I accepted …

And with respect to fairy tales, you should know that I recently wrote a blog in which I offered my own special fairy tale in which I entangled fact and fantasy with quite remarkable dexterity. I then invited you to try to disentangle them. I called this blog “The Magical Value Of Fairy Tales!”—Who Can We Trust? I thought you might enjoy this…

Now for my question—

[message type=”custom” width=”100%” start_color=”#F0F0F0 ” end_color=”#F0F0F0 ” border=”#BBBBBB” color=”#333333″] Assuming there was any merit at all to my 1979 observations, how would these same observations play in 2015?[/message]

In responding to this, please be kind…

My feelings won’t be hurt in the slightest if you think I was full of it in 1979.

In mitigation, way back then I was much younger and better looking. And, of course, I then had an accent, which, incidentally, I no longer have.

The result was that I was then constantly on the lookout for scores gorgeous women who might consider begging me for my affections. While those women never revealed themselves to me, and as you might imagine, all of this could easily have been quite distracting and could easily have affected my judgment…

Finally, I wondered if any of you out there would like to contribute to our story-telling program as a means to help people bring their ideas to life? If you have any interest, lemme know, will’ya?

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IN 1979, prior to arriving in Los Angeles, Michael was an attorney in Johannesburg, South Africa. After leaving South Africa, he worked for an international trading company in its London and Zurich offices... After moving to Los Angeles, he was admitted to the California Bar. Since then, his law work has focused on assisting clients in the negotiating and structuring of their national and international business transactions… In the late 1990s, he ventured from the dark side to explore life on the bright side—the world of business. He was then the CEO of three international companies. In 2008, he ventured back to the dark side, where he always belonged... He has written “Detecting the Scam: Nelson Mandela’s Gift,” which highlights how moral authority, common sense and negotiating skills can help detect and avoid scams. Has also written "Come Dance With Me," a diary about life, laughter, finding balance. His latest project is the "The-Gift-Tree.com."
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