There's an old legal joke.
“A man's word is his bond, but his bail is still set at $5000.”
It's a reminder that most people will say they value honesty and integrity if you ask them.
Yet, somehow society still ends up needing legal enforcement mechanisms to make people keep promises.
By sticking to your word, you join an elite club of men that walks the walk we all talk.
You'll also (and this shouldn't come as a surprise) reap the social rewards that come with being trustworthy and reliable.
The Science of Keeping Your Word
Here's a fact that may surprise people: human beings, in general, appear to prize meeting obligations more than exceeding them.
That is, you will definitely impress people if you do what you say you will. Demonstrations of excessive generosity beyond that, however, don't have nearly as powerful an effect.
This has been tested several different ways by researchers. In one experiment, participants were promised study help with a test. Sometimes they received the promised help, sometimes the helper didn't follow through, and in some cases they not only received the promised help, but also additional materials and aid beyond what was promised.
As expected, people who didn't follow through on their promises were disliked and distrusted. But, interestingly, the ones who went above and beyond what they'd said they would do didn't rate significantly higher on any positive traits.
It's an example of something very basic about human society: we prize honesty and reliability more than generosity or extravagant displays. If you really want to impress people, make promises you can keep — and keep them. Anything beyond that is just window dressing, and anything less is insufficient.
Why Should You Keep Your Word?
Like we said, there's a reason human societies always come up with enforcement mechanisms. Following through on promises is sometimes hard!
We've all gotten ourselves into situations where the only right thing to do is something we promised we would — and that we really don't want to do.
Following through anyway is what separates the people everyone respects from the ones who, at best, will be forgotten.
Stick to the steps below to make sure you're a man who always keeps his word. You'll earn the respect of others — and of yourself.
#1 Make Less Promises
The first step in being a man who keeps his word is being a man who's careful with his word.
Don't promise things you can't follow through on. That means everything: from deadlines you know you'll need an extension on to telling someone you love them when you're already looking for a way out of the relationship.
It's easy to make people happy in the short term by promising what you think they want. But inevitably, when you can't follow through, that happiness will turn to anger — much more anger than if you hadn't overpromised in the first place.
Remember, meeting expectations is prized. Exceeding them is a nice bonus, but not as important. Make reasonable promises so that you're always able to meet expectations, rather than offering too much. The reward isn't great even if you succeed, and the price for failure is high.
#2 Follow Through as Soon as Possible
Putting off an unpleasant task just gives you more days of stress.
If you've got a promise to follow through on, get it done as soon as you can. (Don't rush and make a bad job of it, obviously. Take the time you need to do everything right. But don't take more time than that.)
Everyone benefits from your prompt follow-through. You clear an obligation, whoever you were following through for gets what was promised, and everyone is reminded that you do what you say you will.
#3 Be Clear on Expectations
One way to avoid getting in over your head on promises is to make them very clear up front.
It can feel awkward to be the person who's insisting on more clarity. But don't assume that the other party has a better understanding than you, just because they're not asking questions — most times, people are just letting things go unsaid because they don't want to feel awkward either.
Push a little up front to save misunderstandings down the line. When you agree to do something, you want the other person to have a clear understanding of what your responsibilities are. That way, there's no question when you've fulfilled them.
Most serious promises are not immediate, short-term things. They take time to follow through on. Some are open-ended, or even lifetime arrangements like marriages.
You need to stay in touch with the person you've made a promise to until the obligation is discharged. Don't vanish from their life and leave them wondering if you remember what you said you'd do.
In the age of e-mail and smart phones, there's no excuse for losing touch. Send a note assuring the other party (or parties) that you're working on your end of the promise as often as needed. It doesn't have to be anything fancy: in most cases, a short note to the effect of, “Hey, just wanted to let you know I'm still working on that thing I promised you” is ample.
The wording and the depth of your communication will of course vary depending on what sort of promise we're talking about. But always err on the side of checking in, sending reminders, and assuring people that you're still on-task.
Bonus Tip: Over-Deliver
Finally, when it comes time to discharge your obligation, do it as completely as possible, even if there are minimum standards that you've exceeded.
As we mentioned earlier, there's no huge social return on massive excess. Doing what you said you would is more important than doing things you never mentioned.
But within that context, do what you said you would as well as possible. Make a point to smooth out rough edges, tidy up loose ends, and wrap a nice bow around the whole thing (figuratively speaking, of course).
This isn't just nice, although it's that, too. Often, one area of a project or action won't be quite perfect — that's just human nature and human error. Going a little above and beyond in other areas helps compensate for any slight shortcomings.
At the end of the day, it's all about reliability. People like a guy who does what he says more than a guy who promises the moon and comes up with a handful of gray rocks. Know your limits, keep your obligations within them, and follow through like a champ on the promises you make.
It's the smart, socially successful thing to do. It's also the right thing to do. Wouldn't the world be a nicer place if everyone did it?