Did you know that if you change some of your habits, you could change the world, maybe even help bring about peace and stability?
You know who you are – the person who bribes a police officer to get out of a traffic ticket, cuts in front of people in a queue, parks in spots reserved for the handicapped.
But no! Pardon me! Of course, that’s not you. Your worst sins are little things, maybe just fudging a little on your tax returns, leaving work early, or using your cellphone in a movie theatre. Everybody does that, right?
Right. And that’s the problem. I call it the “Smelly Foot Syndrome,” and it is eroding society on almost every continent.
A colleague once told me he avoids flying a certain airline and pays higher fares to another carrier just to avoid the odor. The airline’s seats are almost always smelly because passengers remove their shoes, leaving the seats with the fragrance of dirty socks.
The Smelly Foot Syndrome is causing one airline to lose business, and that same attitude is causing a lack of civility that violates our very Social Contract – the implicit agreement we make in order to form a society.
All the little rude or dishonest things we do add up to a crumbling, disrespected culture that eventually leads to instability and a loss of peace.
In developing nations, “big” is good, and governments provide it. Big projects – dams, strong armies, nuclear programs, wars against insurgencies – become matters of national pride. Such long-term projects succeed with good governance, but they falter if small bricks at the foundation are weak.
These small bricks are you, me and our fellow citizens. How we behave in our mundane daily lives can topple the entire structure, just as pulling out a small block near the bottom of a stack of wood can bring it all crashing down.
The predicament is more pronounced in poor or developing nations, like my native Afghanistan. When bad habits dominate all aspects of daily life, they become midwife to political, economic and social upheaval.
As one member of the Afghan parliament said TOLO news “It’s not always the government’s fault. (Sometimes) it’s the citizens’ fault.”
In some countries, we see rampant bribery and corruption among citizens, soldiers selling weapons for black-market cash, or even pharmaceutical companies using unethical means to feed opioid addictions for personal profit.
These “bad habits” can be small and personal, yet still destructive: the exchange of women to settle disputes in Pakistan, the bacha bazi practice of using young boys in sexual slavery in Afghanistan, the ritual of female genital mutilation in Africa and Asia.
They also can be the types of unkindness in first-world nations that citizens laugh off – tailgating, littering, not flushing a public toilet.
Corruption has been woven into national cultures for millennia, but you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s a relic of the past or irrelevant in first-world nations. The U.S. era of domination already is in decline. A Reuters news analysis by Glenn Hubbard and Tim Kane used data to show that U.S. economic power peaked in the year 2000 and has been falling ever since.
Some of that corrosion is due to bad behavior. The U.S. lost an estimated $4.5 trillion due to illegal tax evasion in the last 10 years, per the Internal Revenue Service. Developing nations – which feel a much greater impact from revenue loss – are cheated out of an average of $114 billion each year by citizens who don’t pay their taxes, says the International aid agency Oxfam.
Can our worldwide standard of living and prospects for lasting peace really be changed simply by better behavior from our citizens?
In The Power of Habit, author and business reporter Charles Duhigg argues that the habits of employees can build or destroy any organization. Companies often fail because of bad habits, and the theory applies to communities and nations as well. That means if the citizens change their bad habits, everyone will benefit collectively.
The damaging consequences of bad habits can be colossal: governments fail to provide basic services because of a lack of revenue, citizens seek street justice because of a corrupt judiciary, domestic and foreign companies take their business elsewhere, and social unrest festers.
No foreign aid or dictatorial regime can rectify the problem unless the citizens change their own bad habits. As the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher observed, “There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors.”
That airline with the “Smelly Foot Syndrome” isn’t being hurt by bad aircraft, food or service, but by the odor of dirty socks. The problem could be solved if people just change their bad habits. Yes, the airline could prohibit the removal of shoes, but the best way to change a bad habit is not by authoritarian force, but by human decency.
Think of the Golden Rule. When individuals treat others as they would like to be treated, entire nations can be saved. Change your bad habits.