Exam Period in Hungary – when cheating is an honorary obligation

The other week, while still in Budapest, I was picking out some things in a stationary store at one of the many malls, when a girl walked in dressed in the usual exam attire of black skirt and white blouse. I was familiar with the attire. Back when I was still living in Budapest, I accompanied my best friend to an important exam. She was always well put together, as opposed to me, who was reliving her hippie days from a past life. But even so, her attire caught my attention, so I asked her what was up.

“A vizsgát tisztázni kell,” was her reply. Which basically meant that an exam was to be respected. I had an instant flashback to my own mother, who’d grown up in a communist country herself, always telling me to dress up for exams. It was beginning to make sense now.

But that wasn’t the interesting part, merely a reminder. What caught my attention was the girl talking on her cell phone, telling the other person (most likely her mother from the tone of her voice) how she’d “aced the exam” and “copied off this one kid,” totally unconcerned about anyone, possibly even a teacher, overhearing her. Cheating had always been a thing, in Hungary and – judging from the various conversations I’d had with friends from there – also in other ex-communist countries.

I could go into a whole song and dance about this being tied to communism, because I heard the same thing from people in other countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain. I guess solidarity had to be expressed somehow, and what better way to defy authority and assert your friendship than by helping a fellow sufferer out. The truth of the matter is, I really don’t know where it comes from, but it’s very much present.

Here’s the funny thing about fitting in, back in the U.S. I never cheated. It wasn’t so much the fear of getting caught as really wanting to measure myself, prove to myself that I was up for the task. I also respected my teachers, which factored in greatly as well. In Germany, I asked a Romanian girl sitting next to me if I could cheat off her on a math test. She readily agreed. At university in France, during a Hungarian exam, a stranger sitting next to me noticed that that I was stuck, and immediately asked me if I was struggling. That was after she’d told me, five seconds earlier, that I’d used the wrong word. We weren’t even doing the same problem, but she asked her friend, who was sitting next to her, in Hungarian, and I remembered understanding the words, “you’re both doing the same question, help her out.” A few minutes later, I had a piece of paper with some points highlighted in front of me. I never found out their names, but I did pass the class.

I’m honestly not pro or against cheating. The Midwestern kid in me recognizes the fact that it’s dishonest, akin to lying, and should never be done, hence why I never did it in American schools. The Parisian in me recognizes that sometimes you just need some extra aid, and the Hungarian in me just starts looking around the room, because, after all, cheating is all about teamwork, and the business world is nothing if not built on teamwork.

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