"Being a person of one's own word"........"One'd word really means something"

One occasionally hears this lament, not only from old-timers but from the younger generation as well: “Back in the old days, a person’s word actually *meant *something. If they promised something, you knew they’d do it. You could trust people at their word. You just can’t anymore these days.”
Whether this was an exaggeration or not - maybe it’s a rose-tinted look at history - would such a society actually be a *good *thing today? Is it really good to have a society in which people settle business deals with a handshake, sometimes considering written contracts to be unnecessary? If someone’s word is considered as good and serious as a de facto unwritten contract, and lying or failure to live up to a verbal promise were considered an utterly abhorrent offense, would that really be suitable or good for society?

We can’t know if such a society would be good, because such a society never existed, even partially. Back in “the old days” a person’s word may or may not have meant something…but mostly this only held true for those of the same social ranking and above.

[…] the executor of the estate of a deceased minority shareholder brought suit to enforce an agreement by the decedent to sell his shareholding to the majority shareholder. The Judge held that an oral agreement for such a transaction was complete and binding despite the intent of the parties that their agreement should be recorded in a formal written document that they were to sign. Since the parties had not evidenced the clear intention that their oral agreement should be ‘subject to contract,’ a formal signature on a written contract was not required.

In German business, a person’s word and handshake are considered his/her bond. If a verbal agreement is made in a business meeting, it is generally considered binding.

Japan, South Korea, China
In some Asian countries, merely suggesting that a contract should be drawn up signals distrust of the foreign firm’s intentions.

Czarcasm is correct…and, indeed, most people’s given word does count for a great deal, within their social ranking and social circles, even today.

Of all of my co-workers, for instance, 19 out of 20 are true to their word.

Of total strangers, or door-to-door salesmen, or people who send email – even Nigerian princes – the proportion is a lot smaller.

When I hear this sentiment, it isn’t typically in the context of contract law. It’s more like, “Hey, Bert, will you help me move this weekend?” “Of course!”

And then when next weekend comes, Bert says, “Hey, I was going to help you move today, but I didn’t realize that Bruce Springsteen was in town that day. I’m going to the concert, catchya ya later!”

An oral contract is legally binding. The point of a written contract is to memorialize the terms, which even honest people might remember differently (and favorably to themselves) if they were not written down.

When I hear it, it seems more often to be regarding more serious issues, things that at least come very close to contractual obligations. Not so much, “I’ll help you move,” but, say, “When grandmother dies, I’ll pay you in cash for my share of her house.” Or, “If you do so many hours of overtime, I’ll put in a good word with you with the Vice President of Finance.” Or even, “If I get pregnant, I promise I’ll have an abortion.”

The abortion thing can’t be put in a contract. The promise to “put in a good word” is obviously not sufficiently material as to be contractable. Offering to pay cash for a share of joint property very clearly is.

In all of these kinds of things – and in your example of helping someone move – I think that the typical guy’s personal word of honor, today, is about as dependable as it was fifty years ago, or 100, or 200. We really do have a culture that values keeping promises.

As rule of law increases, arm’s length transactions become more and more viable. Meanwhile, reputation becomes less and less important. Two hundred years ago you might concern yourself with regards to the personal character of your butcher and baker. Today you don’t care: you just let the public health department take care of it.

Reductio ad absurdum. How could it be bad? Or how could the opposite be good?

I have serious trouble seeing any sense in your hypothetical.

One of the two times I saw my father cry was when his business partner died. And what he said from amid his tears was “We did business together for thirty-seven years on nothing but a handshake.” And it involved a very significant amount of money.

Contrast to the near-fiasco he encountered with his next partner, with a contract signed and sealed and witnessed, but without the same commitment of good faith, and I suspect my father would prefer all his business deals to have been like the first rather than the last. So, yes, it would be a good thing if people kept their commitments even without writing.


It’s entirely dependent on the commitment. A businessman betraying another on a deal they’d given their word on could gain a better deal for his stockholders. A gang all of whom were party to a crime could keep their word on refusing to snitch, meaning no person is found guilty. A person could keep quiet for years about his friend’s repeated infidelity (hey, a twofer!).

Honesty and loyalty are not in and of themselves good, fine acts. A person who keeps their word shouldn’t command respect - we should first ask; what commitments are they that this person is so dead set on?

It depends on how society would treat violations of the trust. For instance, of people took some kind of violent retribution against others who broke their word, better that we all rely on written contracts.

That’s why IMO the OP question can’t really be properlay answered – there is not sufficient information to give a reasonable answer. If we want to determine whether returning to the concept of “one’s word is one’s bond”, we have to consider under those circonstances how we would deal with conflict resolution.

I’m pretty sure the penalty for breaking one’s word, back in the day (say, early-day USA), was a lot of social backlash and loss of reputation.

Again, only among those of those of the same social stratus.

Haven’t you ever heard of noblesse oblige?


Used much more often to reinforce the rights of the rich, while downplaying the responsibilities.

Cite? Hard data only, please.