Scared of Gifts?

Out for lunch / glass of wine.

I thought taking the bill could be one of good ways to exercise the habit of giving.

Experience left me in doubts.

The first time, I tried with Mirek (names were changed in this post):

“It’s OK Mirek, today it’s on me.”

Shocked look in Mirek’s eyes: “Man, I can pay for my own lunch!”

I’m a conflict avoider. I let Mirek pay for himself.

A week after that, discussing with a Toastmasters colleague (let’s call her Gina) over a glass of wine. This time I’m making sure there will be no fights. I pay at the bar on my way from the bathroom. Coming back to the table, Gina says we should get the bill. I smile and say that she does not need to worry. I have already taken care of it. Gina’s expression starts with surprise, stays a few seconds in questioning look and ends clearly displaying fury. She opens her handbag, frantically looking for something (a purse, I hope, not a gun). Opening the purse she realizes she does not have any cash and therefore won’t be able to pay me her half right away.

A victorious smile stays on my face only for a moment. That is until I realize that she actually is seriously upset about the whole situation and keeps talking about how this is not right until the moment we part at the tram station.

Just to add to the story: The first thing Gina does when I met her a few days later is that she stuffs my hand with banknotes covering her part of the bill.

Made me wonder: What’s wrong those people? What’s so scary about being invited for a meal or a glass of wine? And maybe even: How can they be so rude to reject such a gift?

I’m sure you can come up with many explanations – let me offer you one more. It’s from Rebecca Solnit’s Faraway Nearby.

(…) we imagine that gifts put us in the giver’s debt, and debt is supposed to be a bad thing. You can see it in the way people sometimes try to reciprocate immediately out of a sense that indebtedness is a burden.

Never thought that by trying to invite them, I made Mirek and Gina feel like they’re about to be choked by another mortgage.

The explanation continues, expanded by the idea of anthropologist David Graeber, put in Rebecca Solnit’s words:

Before money, people didn’t barter but gave and received as needs and goods ebbed and flowed. They thereby incurred the indebtedness that bound them together, and reciprocated slowly, incompletely, in the ongoing transaction that is a community. Money was invented as a way to sever the ties by completing the transactions that never needed to be completed in the older system, but existed like a circulatory system in a body.

I get it that nowadays most of us wish to stay strong, independent and free of such an above described debt.

However – for me, the idea of gifts binding us together is a fascinating one. So fascinating, that I guess I’ll risk a few more tries. In the worst case – I’ll just sit back and watch another infuriated reaction. And in the best case – who knows?

Shall we grab a lunch together?

Featured image by Thomas Lefebvre, taken from Colors adjusted.

4 thoughts on “Scared of Gifts?

  1. Excellent article – Thanks ! This is the law of reciprocity (Used a lot by salesmen).
    So when you pay for us, we expect that you’ll ask somehting in return.

    But you can pay me a lunch anytime Lukas, I will not say no :D.

  2. Another thoughtful post, thank you! I’ve adopted the habit of asking my dining companion “will you please allow me the honor/pleasure of having you as my guest?” This way they automatically reciprocate by giving you something that you want – works like a charm!

    • Hi Carlos – a smart move. I guess you can aviod most of the furious reactions when you introduce the fact you’re paying with such statement 🙂

      With those people that don’t get angry with me, I usually get a promise such as “that means we have to do it (the lunch) again so that repay your invite”. That is, for me at least, even better than getting something in return right away, because it creates a dynamic of something going on in longer term.

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