All over America, kids are playing with new toys and piles of wrapping paper are stuffed into trash bags.
Perhaps you’re breathing a sigh of relief that the trips to crowded stores are over, along with the damage to your credit card.
But what if someone bought you a gift and you didn’t get her anything? Or what if someone gave you something much nicer than you gave her?
Will you go online tonight to hurriedly order something? Or stew in your discomfort and embarrassment?
What if you gave someone a present significantly better than what you got in return? Are you keeping score?
Whatever the inequity, it might be a good place to practice receiving graciously.
I recently read a blog post headlined, “Do You Graciously Receive?,” that included this anecdote:
… Kate commented that someone had a sharp response to her wanting to buy their coffee being next in line at a coffee shop. This might be a classic example of what you wouldn’t normally expect someone to respond like to an act of kindness but it seems that in reality, things are much more difficult to graciously receive than one might think.
Many times I think that serving others is actually easier than receiving from others. Perhaps you’ve heard about someone getting mad over paying for their coffee and think you would never do this yourself. You would likely want to simply thank the person and move on, but I doubt you would find it that easy.
The author discusses how common it is for us to dismiss a compliment or wave off an offer to help, discouraging the other person from kindness and keeping a distance between us. He also notes how fights can break out over who picks up the check when friends dine out together.
We’re programmed to a certain amount of this score keeping. It’s part of the social code of reciprocity — I scratch your back, you scratch mine.
“We are obligated to give back to others, the form of behavior that they have first given to us,” he says. “Essentially thou shall not take without giving in return.”
And so if someone passes you in the hall and says hello, you feel compelled to return their greeting. When you don’t, you notice it, it makes you uncomfortable, out of balance. That’s the rule of reciprocation.
“There’s not a single human culture that fails to train its members in this rule,” Cialdini says.
This is probably because there are some obvious benefits to the rule of reciprocation; it’s one of those rules that likely made it easier for us to survive as a species.
But there are so many ways to reciprocate that aren’t about objective bookkeeping.
When we went to Burning Man this year, an art event in the Nevada desert that operates on a gift economy, I was struck by participants’ comfort with both giving and receiving. People gave freely, without strings, so recipients were freed up to enjoy the gift without expectations — and an appreciative thank you seemed a lovely way to reciprocate.
I don’t think anyone likes to feel taken advantage of. It doesn’t feel good to give a gift that’s not acknowledged or appreciated, which is part of what reciprocity does. It shows us the other person saw value in what we gave.
So maybe saying a real thank you is the foundation of graciously receiving?
And if you can’t afford a gift that costs as much as the one you received from a friend or family member, maybe the dollar figure matters less than giving a present that shows genuine thoughtfulness?
If your gift giving is done for the holiday season, then how about spending the next few days reflecting on all those who’ve shown you generosity and letting them know how much you appreciate it?
I have pointers on thank you notes, if you’d like a little help getting started …