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Reciprocity, Equality

A fourth large category of motives is related to psychological expectations
of reciprocity and equality. The underlying idea is that favors have to be
reciprocated with equivalent value: I will give you something, because I
expect that you will return my gift in due time or when necessary (for
instance, in the case of help). Most of the reported motives are of this
mixed type: there is a propensity to give, but before doing so an inner
calculus is made about the respective participants™ position on the “debt-
balance” (Schwartz 1967). Feelings of being morally obliged to return a
gift and not purely altruistic motives are the main psychological impetus
to reciprocal giving. A deeply felt need to render a service to another
person is lacking here; equality is the moral criterion: “I looked after
their children by way of compensation: my brother-in-law helped me
with my doctoral thesis. More of a compensation than a real joy, yes.”
Another respondent went doing odd jobs for friends, although he did
not like it in the least: “It is stupid work. I did my own home not so long
ago, and I still am heartily sick of it. But those are the things friends are
expected to do for each other, mutually.”


A ¬fth class of motives is based on implicit or explicit self-interest, either
taking the shape of promoting one™s own interests or by disadvantaging
or harming the recipient. A range of possibilities is present here: gifts that
serve to ¬‚atter, propitiate, corrupt, blackmail, or bribe. The entire world
of sponsoring but also segments of political and professional life feed on
this idea. Many gifts in the sphere of public life hardly cover up the self-
interest that motivated them “ for instance, the pharmaceutical industry

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

offering golf weekends to physicians and their partners, concluded by
a light scienti¬c program on the advantages of certain pharmaceutical
products. Particularly, the larger business gifts are close to a bribe. Money
gifts may be used for all kinds of dubitable aims: as hush or redemption
money, or as a means to obtain certain societal or political gains. Although
gift giving has earlier been de¬ned as a voluntary and spontaneous act,
some gifts are not allowed to be given freely, as is shown by the fact that
gifts to political parties have been forbidden by the law in many countries.
Our respondents sometimes make a sharp calculus about the debt
balance between give and take: does the other person not pro¬t too much
from my gift giving? Does what I receive from others measure up to what
I gave myself? Personal costs and gains are the main motives here. Giving,
in this case, is based on a kind of market model, in which personal costs
and bene¬ts form the dominant considerations. One male respondent
who felt that his neighbors had asked him too often to perform all kinds of
small jobs for them, said: “At one moment I felt that I was taken advantage
of; well, then it is the end, for me. It™s different when it is coming from
both sides, but here, there is only one party who does all the giving. Well,
then I am ¬nished with it.” And another one says: “It is nice playing open-
handed Gerald always, but there has to be some return at some time.” Or:
“Others help me too, yes. Otherwise I would not do it, I think. I am not
going to make a fool of myself.”

Hostility, Hate, Contempt

Finally, in addition to, or sometimes even combined with, the motive
of self-interest, motives related to hostility, hate, or contempt may in-
spire our gift giving. Gift giving as an intentional act of unfriendliness
is perhaps a less usual way of looking at the phenomenon but is not un-
common. The extent of the hostility may vary from relatively harmless
practical joke gifts, like the exploding cigar or the jack-in-the-box, to
gifts motivated by really deep-seated feelings of anger, hate, or disdain.

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

We may give a gift to someone who has affronted us or treated us badly
in order to let this person sense how ignominious his action has been.
Aggression can be the underlying motive of a meager gift given to some-
body whom we used to bestow with abundant gifts in the past. Anna
Freud™s “altruistic surrender,” abundant giving to a person of whom one
is intensely jealous and whom one deeply hates for that reason, is another
example (A. Freud 1986 [1936]).

Fiske™s Four Models and the Motives to Give

The four models of human relationships outlined in Chapter 1 can clearly
be recognized in the psychological motives described here. However,
although the models correspond to some of the motives, the models
do not cover the motives entirely. The motives reveal more of people™s
motivations to give than the models do. This comes as no surprise be-
cause Fiske™s models are based mainly on sociological and anthropo-
logical material. The statements of our respondents, quoted in Chapter 1
as illustrations of the models, make clear that there are four ways in which
people may relate to gifts and, through these gifts, to other people: com-
munity, authority, equality, and market. The ¬rst category of motives
mentioned earlier, the positive affect, seems akin to the type of feelings
involved in community, the model that has disinterested concern and
commitment to other people “ often family and loved ones “ at its core.
However, the strategic aspects that may go with gifts apparently given out
of “pure love” “ the want for attention, the wish to make up for some
wrong or to soothe one™s conscience “ show that community may be too
super¬cial a way to describe what is going on in a social relationship based
on sympathy. Moreover, motives like insecurity or anxiety may very well
underlie gifts given within the mode of community: lovers giving abun-
dantly to one another, thereby trying to diminish their insecurity about
the status of their relationship, or children giving loyally to their parents
because they are afraid to lose their affection.

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

Motives arising from a need for power and prestige are in accordance
with the relational model of authority. But here, as well, the motives of in-
security and anxiety may accompany the power motive and complicate its
meaning. As Adorno™s famous research on the authoritarian personality
makes clear, insecurity and anxiety are often at the roots of authoritarian
ways of behaving (Adorno 1950). Expensive or abundant gifts given with
the aim to acquire a superior position over other people or to make them
dependent upon us may, at a deeper level, re¬‚ect the fundamental inse-
curity about the impact and ef¬cacy of the respective resources of giver
and recipient and, thereby, about the status of the relationship.
A very common type of motive in gifts is the self-evident giving “be-
cause it™s only normal,” the tit-for-tat re¬‚ected in the relational model
of equality. When a friend invites us to dinner, we bring ¬‚owers or wine;
she does the same, when dining with us, just because it is the normal
thing to do. The reported motives based on self-interest are correspond-
ing to the relational mode of the market. Self-interest may go together
with hostility and aggression, but this need not be the case. Gifts given
by the pharmaceutical industry to the physicians are motivated by self-
interest but are not expressing hostility. Hostility is an additional category
of offensive motives that may occur in any of the four relational modes,
thereby complicating their impact. Just as disappointed or frustrated love
(Fiske™s community) is susceptible to turning into aggression, so can rela-
tions normally characterized by authority or equality become perverted
by anger or vengeance.
In many fairy tales malevolent gifts play a prominent role, for in-
stance, Snow White™s poisoned apple. In the Introduction we have seen
that the German and Dutch word Gift, meaning poison, has its ety-
mological roots in the word “gift.” Some gifts are literally given with
the intention to sacri¬ce somebody™s life; think of the legendary poi-
soned cup. In the following section examples from our own research
(Komter and Schuyt 1993a) show how, behind the cheerfully colored
wrapping of the gift, intentions of the giver may be hidden which are

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

not in the least congruent with the recipient™s frame of mind toward the

Offensive and Embarrassing Gifts

Although the role of conscious intention in giving an offensive gift is
limited, gifts are often experienced as such by their recipients. Even if it
were one™s explicit intention to give an offensive gift, it is probably dif¬cult
to admit that to an interviewer. Here we are faced with a fundamental
dif¬culty that underlies any attempt to measure motives of this kind. It is
extremely dif¬cult, if not impossible, to capture the motives underlying
gift giving because the act of gift giving is in most cases barely re¬‚ected
upon. It is therefore not surprising that only a small minority of our
respondents “ 8% “ report that they have ever given an offensive gift;
10% have received an offensive gift at some time. When using a more
friendly term like being “embarrassed” by a gift, the pattern changes: 21%
of the respondents have given an embarrassing gift to another person,
and 31% say they had felt embarrassed by a received gift. On the basis
of our respondents™ stories about offending and embarrassing gifts, we
developed four categories of “bad gifts.”
First, some gifts are simply not appropriate: “An acquaintance gave
me after-shave, although I have been wearing a beard for twenty-¬ve
years”; “wine but I don™t drink alcohol”; “a couple of geese, although we
already have so many animals”; “jeans that were too small”; “a ridiculously
expensive vase from an amorous colleague.” Second, there are thoughtless
gifts, or gifts that are too easy, bought in haste, or already in the giver™s
possession and then passed on: “a nasty little ¬‚oral emblem for my farewell
after having been the president and vice-president of the company for
twenty-¬ve years”; “two ceramic cats “ supermarket rubbish “ while I am
a ceramic sculptor myself ”; “a 1992 calendar, received in August 1992.”
Third, some gifts are pedagogical in the sense that they point to another
person™s weaknesses, criticize him or her, or communicate a form of

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

uncalled-for advice. For example, one respondent reports that she has
given a scale to someone else as a Christmas present “in order to let him
weigh things out”; other pedagogical gifts are antiperspirants or shampoo
or soap, “as if I smell bad”; or advice books about “how to bring up your
dog” or about how to cope with alcohol addiction. Finally, there is the
category of trash and monstrosities: castoffs such as “a used teapot”; “a
bag with second hand clothes, which was ready for the trash can”; and
monstrosities like “a ¬shbone plate,” “a screaming-green ¬‚oorlamp from
my grandmother,” “a small net to cover plates, which was so cheap it fell
in pieces immediately.”
The many ways in which one may offend or embarrass other people
with one™s gifts are presumably re¬‚ected in the deeper meaning of the
adage that you “should not look a gift horse in the mouth.” Gift giving is
inherently risky, exactly because of its psychological function of disclosing
identities. Gift giving is a game with an uncertain outcome. One does not
bargain about gifts, and that is precisely what distinguishes gift exchange
from economic exchange.

The Debt Balance: Source of Relational Risks

One important effect of the gift is that it serves to recognize the value of the
recipient as a person. But gift giving is at the same time a very risky activity,
precisely because identity is so crucially involved. One potential risk is
that the recipient does not share the feelings we want to express in our
gift. Our well-intentioned gift may cause disappointment, disapproval,
irritation, or embarrassment in the recipient. With our gift we may have
forced ourselves too much upon the recipient. We sometimes project
our own feelings onto the other person: a gift out of compassion toward
another person may, in the end, re¬‚ect our own self-pity; a great love for
us supposedly felt by another person may be reduced to our own feelings
of love for him or her. We may misjudge the taste or the needs of the
recipient, or the nature of our relationship to the other person, causing

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

him or her to reject the gift. This is an extremely painful event, as the
rejection of the gift may not only re¬‚ect that we had a wrong image of
the recipient but also, and more seriously, imply a rejection of our own
personal identity and being by the recipient.
Gifts re¬‚ect, con¬rm, disturb, or injure identities. The motives used in
this interactional process range from love and sympathy, to insecurity and
anxiety, to power and prestige, to self-interest and overt hostility. Gifts
may be conciliatory as well as estranging and distancing; they may be
saving as well as sacri¬cing lives. This enormous psychological potential
of the gift has been largely ignored so far. In order to prevent gifts from
becoming perverted, it is extremely important to keep the subtle balance
between giver and recipient intact. Giver and recipient ¬nd themselves
involved in a debt balance with respect to one another. This balance should
neither be in complete equilibrium nor disintegrate into disequilibrium.
Giver and receiver should be in an alternatively asymmetrical position on
this balance, each party properly reciprocating the gift received, thereby
preserving the equilibrium. The extent of asymmetry can only be held in
control by the speci¬c type of feelings usually evoked by a gift: gratitude.
Not being able to feel proper gratitude, exaggerating or underplaying
one™s own gratitude, not acknowledging gratitude in the recipient, under-
or overestimating his or her gratitude: all of these imperfections can
severely disturb the debt balance and generate great relational risks.

Three insights can be derived from the current chapter that are important
in view of the theoretical model that is developed in the course of this
book and speci¬ed in Chapter 9. A ¬rst building stone for our argument is
the reciprocity principle for which empirical support has been presented
in this chapter. The reciprocity of giving and receiving is a crucial element
in our model of solidarity. A second aspect concerns the insight that gifts
re¬‚ect identities. Gift exchange is based on the mutual recognition by
givers and recipients of each others™ identity. Without that recognition it

Patterns of Giving and Receiving

would be impossible to render meaning to gifts themselves; for gifts reveal
both the identity of the giver and his perception of the recipient™s identity.
Finally, the commonly accepted idea that gifts have merely positive con-
sequences for social relationships is disproved in this chapter. Negative
aspects and consequences are also connected to solidarity, in the sense
that some people are excluded from the community whereas others are
included, although sometimes at the cost of their own autonomy.


The Anatomy of Gratitude

Gratitude and resentment, therefore, are the sentiments which
most immediately and directly prompt to reward and to punish.
To us, therefore, he must appear to deserve reward, who appears
to be the proper and approved object of gratitude; and he to
deserve punishment, who appears to be that of resentment.
(Adam Smith 2002 [1759]: 81)

In our commonsense thinking about gratitude, we are inclined to think
of it as a warm and nice feeling directed toward someone who has been
benevolent to us. The de¬nitions of gratitude given in dictionaries con-
¬rm this perspective. Although I think that this view contains an im-
portant element of truth, it disregards a more fundamental meaning
of gratitude. Beneath these warm feelings resides an imperative force, a
force that compels us to return the bene¬t we have received. Gratitude
has a clearly speci¬ed action tendency connected to it, as Adam Smith
had already noticed and as is also stipulated by contemporary emotion
theorists (Lazarus and Lazarus 1994). This duty to return led the social
psychologist Barry Schwartz (1967) to speak of the “gratitude imperative.”
Why aren™t we allowed to look a gift horse in the mouth? Because that
would be a sign of ingratitude and of indifference toward the giver, and
that is simply disastrous. In Japan the recipient of a gift is not allowed
to unwrap it in the presence of the giver. To Western eyes this may seem

The Anatomy of Gratitude

an exotic habit, but on closer inspection it contains a very important
message about gratitude: by keeping the gift wrapped, the recipient™s
possible disappointment about the gift and its giver “ showing itself in a
lack of gratitude “ remains hidden. Perhaps this is the Japanese version
of our gift horse.
Why is a lack of gratitude felt as something to be avoided by all means?
Because gift exchange and the attendant feelings of gratitude serve to
con¬rm and maintain social ties. Gratitude is part of the chain of reci-
procity and, as such, it has “survival value”: it is sustaining a cycle of
gift and countergift and is thereby essential in creating social cohesion
and community. Gratitude is the oil that keeps the engine of the human
“service economy” going, to use Frans de Waal™s term (1996).
But gratitude is not merely a moral coercion; it is also a moral virtue.
Gratitude as a virtue is an important aspect of character: the capacity
to experience as well as express feelings of being thankful. The fact that
somebody may be seen as a grateful person indicates that gratitude is a
personality asset, a talent or even a gift that permeates all the social rela-
tionships in which this person is involved. Lacking this virtue results in
ingratitude, which seems to be an enduring personality characteristic as
well. People who are regarded as ungrateful incur the risk of becoming
isolated and estranged because of their inability to contribute to the essen-
tial symbolic nourishment on which human relationships are fed “ that is,
the mutual exchange of gifts connecting people by the bonds of gratitude.
The linguistic meanings of the word “grateful” are revealing. In English
as well as Dutch, “grateful” has a wider range of meanings than the literal
one of being grateful to somebody for having received something. The
¬rst meaning becomes clear if we speak of a “grateful shade” where the
word is synonymous with salutary or pleasant. In “grateful soil” the word
means fertile, able to produce abundance without much outside help. In
Dutch we speak of a “grateful task” or a “grateful subject,” indicating that
the task or subject promises its own reward without much extra effort
(gratitude itself seems to be this kind of subject!).

The Gift: Meanings and Motives

I refrain here from trying to give a full-blown de¬nition of gratitude,
because de¬nitions of such multilayered and complex phenomena are
bound to be inadequate. What I can do, however, is sketch the contours
of an “anatomy of gratitude,” in an effort to delineate some of its most
prominent aspects and meanings. I approach the subject from various
angles, starting with the very thing that is given away. Anthropological
perspectives on the “spirit of the gift” wanting to be returned to the
original donor are the focus here. Next I consider the recipient of the gift
and analyze gratitude from a psychological point of view, as a personality
characteristic. How do people develop the capacity to be grateful and
express gratitude toward others? Then, from a sociological point of view,
I focus on the mutual relationship between the recipient and the giver
and the social and cultural impact of gratitude. Reciprocity appears to
be the underlying principle behind gift exchange, with the connected
feelings of gratitude functioning as the moral cement of human society
and culture as such. Without gratitude there would be no social continuity
as it fosters and maintains the network of social ties in which we are

The Spirit of the Gift

Let us ¬rst examine some of the most seminal insights on gifts and grati-
tude formulated by anthropologists. According to them, one of the main
characteristics of gifts is that they should be given and reciprocated. A
gift that cannot “move” loses its gift properties. A very clear example
is the Kula, the ceremonial exchange of gifts by the inhabitants of the
Trobriand Islands near New Guinea. Malinowski, who lived among them
during the First World War, describes this ritual in detail in Argonauts of
the Western Paci¬c (1950 [1922]). The Kula is a form of exchange on the
part of the communities inhabiting a wide ring of islands, which form
a closed circuit. Along this route, articles of two kinds constantly travel
in opposite directions. Long necklaces of red shell move in a clockwise

The Anatomy of Gratitude

direction, whereas bracelets of white shell move in a counterclockwise
direction. After some time, these articles meet articles of the other class
on their way and are exchanged for them. It takes between two and ten
years for each article in the Kula to make a full round of the islands. This
practice shows that it is not the articles that count but the exchange itself,
the principle of give-and-take, as Malinowski terms it. The important
thing is that the Kula gifts are kept in motion. If a man keeps a gift too
long, he develops a bad reputation. Somebody who owns something is
expected to share it, to pass it on. Among the Trobriand Islanders, to
possess is to give, as Malinowski says.
Another example of a gift cycle can be found in Mauss (1990 [1923]). In
his essay on the gift he describes the habits and traditions of the Maori,
the native tribes in New Zealand. The Maori have a word, hau, which
means spirit, in particular the spirit of the gift. Returning from the forest
where they have killed birds, the hunters of these tribes give a part of their

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