Always extend the handshake to getting something onto a contract. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

“Congratulations,” said the realtor. “The owners have accepted your application; the house is yours.”

It was the call I’d been waiting for – the call that moved my family and I one step closer to our new life. For months, we had been split between our home in Dubai and a rented apartment in downtown Boston. We were supposed to be reunited and living the life by now - instead, we became unwitting victims of the COVID-19 lockdown.

As I write, my wife and younger kids are enduring the heat of the desert summer and I am holed up here with one of our older kids who was displaced from his university by the pandemic. With the situation less than ideal, you can imagine my relief as the realtor broke the news last Monday.

Only, that relief was shortlived. In fact, what happened next didn’t just halt the shipment of our furniture, it forced me to question whether a man’s word still counts for something, or whether it’s all just talk.

All get undone

Here’s what happened in brief: On Monday we got the call, by mid-week the lease had been drafted, and on Thursday, we found ourselves at our future home, chatting with the owners about what furniture, if any, we’d like to keep. A few days later, however, the deal was off. On Sunday - less than a week since we had received the good news - the realtor was back on the phone, but this time, his tone was more conciliatory than congratulatory.

“The owners of the house have gone with someone else,” he announced, feigning surprise.

I was stunned. Were these the same owners – the same esteemed professors – who’s home I was in days earlier planning our move and painting a picture of the life that we would soon be enjoying in their beloved house? I dug a little deeper.

“Did you know this was coming?” I asked the realtor. In the moment’s silence that followed, I could sense him squirming on the end of the line. “Er, yes,” he muttered, “but they told me not to say anything.”

One’s word is clearly not good enough

I was incandescent. It was not the dozens of hours that I wasted on the whole process, nor the emotional investment my family had made in the prospect of that house. It wasn’t even the inconvenience of halting the logistics we had set in motion to make the move happen.

No - what enraged me more than anything was the ease with which the owners and the realtor had broken their word.

A person’s word used to mean something - it came with value attached. It was what a man or woman’s reputation hinged upon: break it and you were shamed. Keep it and you were respected in whichever circles you moved in. Once upon a time, deals were sealed on a handshake and a promise; there was no need for lawyers or to sign on the dotted line.

Ditch when convenient

Now – and not for the first time – I am reminded that sometimes there’s simply no room for good faith. Instead, I have been confronted with one of the sadder traits of the human character. I have learned the hard way that people can be quick to articulate their values, and even quicker to throw them by the wayside as soon as they get squeezed.

It goes way beyond the rental market. The funny thing is, across the political divide, those who tirelessly espouse strong morals and ethics, when squeezed ditch the beliefs they condemn others for not holding up. How can you espouse one set of ethics and live by another?

While I leave you to decide which side of the political fence they reside on, I will return to my property search only this time, I will wait to pop the cork until the contractual ink is well and truly dry… and all the while I will continue to keep my word.

- Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and an author. Contact him at tsw@tommyweir.com.