As Good As Your Word?

Quote of the Week

“Our character is an omen of our destiny, and the more integrity we have and keep, the simpler and nobler that destiny is likely to be.”
~ George Santayana

As Good As Your Word?

by Loren Ekroth

Legend has it that years ago in the American Southwest, cattle were traded and sold on the basis of a few words and a handshake.  No contracts necessary.  A man’s word was his bond.  Similarly, within the councils of Hopi and Navaho tribes, speaking the truth was a requirement.  Words were thoughtful and few and carefully chosen.  Participants spoke truth.

Fast-forward to 2010 with these two examples:

1. I invite an acquaintance to a dinner and social evening at my home. She replies, “Thanks, I’ll try to make it.”

Should I set a place for her at the table?  Probably not.

She is being polite, and the connotation of what she says is “I’ll be there.”  But the chance is better than 50/50 that she won’t attend.

(As Yoda said in Star Wars, “Do or do not… there is no try.”)

2. I ask a fellow, “We need help serving at our church potluck dinner on Sunday. Can you help out?”  He says, “Count on me.”

But he doesn’t show up, so we’re short-handed.

Later, when I see these two people, they may not even mention not having kept their agreement, implying that I should understand because “something came up,” or “it slipped my mind.”  No apology needed.

What’s going on here?  Do words have no weight?

It appears that these folks think talk is cheap and that keeping your word is not important. However, here’s a principle that’s solid:

Your agreements show your integrity.

Therefore, take all agreements seriously, and don’t make any agreements you don’t plan to keep, or cannot keep.  As well, make sure your agreements are clear.  If the agreement involves money or other assets, put it in writing.

Recently a friend told me of a woman who temporarily shared his apartment. A nurse, she would be able to help him from time to time. (He has a serious heart condition.)  At one point she told him that she was in financial difficulty and asked for a loan of $1500 with a promise to pay him back “soon.”  He agreed and gave her the $1500 based on her verbal promise to pay him back “soon.”

A few weeks later she paid him $200 “on account.”  Shortly after, she moved out and went to another state, no forwarding address.  With no way of contacting her, he has said goodbye to $1300.

Have you been having this experience with people whose word is not good?

If so, here are a few things you can do, starting with yourself:

  1. Make very few agreements, and only those you are quite sure you are able to keep.  Make very, very few promises.  Keep those you make.
  2. If you can’t keep an agreement, renegotiate it or cancel it.  “I’m awfully sorry, I can’t help you out on Sunday.  My child is sick.”
  3. Be careful with whom you make agreements.  Certainly don’t make agreements with those whose record is not keeping them.
  4. Don’t make agreements to do anything you don’t have control over, such as assuming what others might do before you’ve checked with them, as in “I’ll be happy to help you move and will bring 3 friends to help.”
  5. Be absolutely sure of mutual understanding, so you don’t accept language like “I’ll pay you back soon,” or “I’ll call you next week.” Ask, “What’s the specific time you can call me?”  If that time is convenient to both, confirm it and put it in your schedule.  (Have you noticed how your dentist’s receptionist will call you to remind you about your appointment a day in advance?  And that if you are a no-show, you’ll be charged?)  Reminders are good.

If a person makes and doesn’t keep agreements with others, it is likely that they don’t keep agreements with themselves, either.  They tell themselves they are going to do something like study for a test, but they don’t do it.

We can be friendly and civil to people we know even if their word is not good.  (We may even have relatives or co-workers who are well known for not keeping their agreements, especially if money is involved.)  But, if that’s the situation with you, follow the advice of Polonius to his hotheaded son Laertes (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet):

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

Loren Ekroth (c) 2010, all rights reserved. Loren Ekroth, Ph.D. is a specialist in human communication and a national expert on conversation for business and social life. Complimentary newsletter, “Better Conversations” at Contact at

Coaching Call to Action

This week become aware of all of the requests being made of you.  Before you make an agreement to a request, make sure it’s something that you are able to keep.  If you find that you are not able to keep the agreement, make sure to let the person know.  No one likes surprises.  In using this process, do you make more agreements?  Fewer agreements?  More meaningful agreements?  What changes for you?