The Trouble With Giving and Receiving Gifts

The giving and receiving of gifts is something we all experience, be it on birthdays, Christmases or increasingly in business. Thus, we must have a clear understanding of what role gifts and favours fulfil in a relationship and how we can judge the value of a gift. Without this understanding, we expose ourselves, our families and our communities to undue influence from obligations incurred without our conscious acquiescence.

The key problem with the giving and receiving of gifts is from which perspective the gift should be seen — from the givers or the receivers. What I mean by this becomes more apparent when there is a wealth or power difference between the giver and receiver. For instance, if you happen to be friends with a billionaire but are poor, can you give him an appropriate gift without bankrupting yourself? What about when the roles are reversed, and you as a billionaire wish to give your poor friend a gift?

If the value of the gift is assessed from the perspective of the receiver, then trouble is rarely far behind. If a poor man gives a gift to a rich man that is, to him, of great value, yet it is viewed with disdain by the rich man, the poor man will feel resentful. While if the poor man gives a small gift quite appropriate to one of his station in life, it will seem worthless compared to the gifts of the wealthy. If the roles are reversed, and the rich man gives a gift to the poor man again, it is very hard to avoid trouble. A great gift from the poor man’s perspective will breed obligation, while a small gift coming from one so wealthy seems almost insulting. Little wonder it is often said that the rich and poor can rarely be friends.

Judge a Gift According To The Giver

However, all these difficulties disappear if, instead of viewing the value of a gift from that of the receiver, we view a gift from the giver’s perspective. Then both the poor man and the rich man can give equal gifts regardless of the material value of the actual presents. This is not to say that if your friend is a billionaire, they should give you a gift equivalent to the percentage of your income that you spent on a gift for them or anything so mercurial as that.

It means that the obligation incurred from the acceptance of a favour or gift is equivalent to the value of the favour or gift from the giver. In other words, giving a friend shelter in your house or letting them borrow your car is equivalent regardless of the value of the items. Conversely, lending $100,000 as a billionaire may be less of a favour than a poor man lending $1,000. This is as $1,000 may be a far more significant amount to a poor man than $100,000 is for a billionaire. Hence your reciprocal obligation will be greater to the poor man than to the rich man as the relative value of the favour is greater. After all, if the wealthy man bears no hardship in the gift yet the poor man has to move mountains, the gifts cannot be seen to be the same.

Now, you might wonder why this matters; after all, not many of us have billionaires as friends. Yet, it is not just in these exceptional cases that gift-giving can be problematic. Merely by virtue of being in a position of authority, the giving or accepting of gifts can lead to the appearance of corruption or, worse, can lead to implied obligations. Thus, it is best, as with any difficult situation, to come to the crisis armed with a clear understanding of what you believe.

What Do They Want?

Another way in which looking at gifts from the giver’s perspective helps us is that it encourages us to form a clear picture of the giver’s intentions. Too often, we see a timely gift from the perspective of the problem it solves for us. We don’t stop to ask what the giver is trying to achieve from their apparent act of kindness. This ambivalence to intentions can leave us wide open to trouble. However, if before we accept a gift, we ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this gift to the giver? We force ourselves to consider the motives behind the gift and not just the gift itself.

Unfortunately, not every person we meet will have altruistic impulses. As Peter Hartcher recounts in his excellent Quarterly Essay: Red Flag, gifts can often be used to buy influence by those who have ulterior motives. Of course, whenever you find yourself in a situation where it is clear that the gift is a bid for leverage, it is wise to refuse the gift. Once a gift has been accepted, there is no going back whatever your intentions are — an obligational relationship has begun.

Of course, there are many situations where cultural norms around gift-giving obscure the intent behind a gift. This is especially the case when you find yourself dealing with East-Asian businesses or even those who have grown up in the gift-giving cultures of this region. In this context, refusing a gift may be considered rude and damage the relationship, so how can you diplomatically accept the gift while rejecting the obligation? My advice is to accept the gift only if they accept a gift from you in return. The truth is, there is no free lunch in this world — a benefit provided without even a symbolic return creates an obligation that can be cashed in at a later date.

Gifts Always Create Obligations

If you doubt me, consider how you would feel if you had bought someone a few coffees at work and one day you forgot your wallet when you were both at the coffee cart. Would you feel that they should return the favour? Of course, you would. You may have bought them the coffees out of the best of intentions and not have kept track of how many you had brought. Yet when you need help, you would feel that an obligation had come into existence and expect that they would come through for you.

As I talk about in the Code, relationships are made up of webs of obligations. Gifts and favours are some of the essential building blocks that build and reinforce these relationships. Each favour received and returned builds and strengthens the bonds of friendship. While, conversely, a favour refused damages the friendship in direct proportion to its perceived importance. Nobody (despite what they may believe) gives anything away for free, no matter the stated intent of a gift. An obligation is always created when a gift or favour is given and received. If you continuously accept gifts from someone yet never pay them back, you place yourself in their debt. When the time comes to return the favour, you will be left with a choice between creating an enemy or perhaps doing something you know is wrong.

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First Published on https://www.andrew-stadtmauer.com/ on the 16th of September 2021

I am a writer and philosopher. Join me in exploring the purpose of life and how we can best achieve it. Check out www.andrew.stadtmauer.com for more.