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kindness reciprocity

What happened to reciprocity?

Is it and being kind passé?

Is returning favors not in style?

Is swopping favors a practice that’s so tainted by unethical or manipulative behavior that people no longer feel the need to exchange things for mutual benefit?

These questions pin-balled around in my head as I thought about two scenarios I’d experienced.

1) I facilitated a community table discussion amongst eight individuals from a variety of walks of life. When the session was over, several people began exchanging business cards. A polite but matter-of-fact woman said this to everyone who offered her one of their cards, “Thanks. I don’t want your card but I do want you to have mine. Here you go.” Her refusal to participate in what I viewed as a social nicety shocked me.

2) Six of us volunteered to write a workbook for a nonprofit workshop. Five of the six agreed to edit and proof each other’s content. The sixth wanted others to critique his materials but wouldn’t agree to review the materials of the others. The group insisted on full-circle participation, so he dropped out of the work. His unwillingness to engage in reciprocal work felt alien and unfriendly.

As I’m prone to do when things puzzle me, I dove into research.

Numerous writers have observed that the norm of social reciprocity—exchanging kindness, goods, and services for mutual benefit—has long been part of the cultural fabric.

In People of the Lake: Mankind and its Beginning, Richard Leakey and Kurt Lewin note that the “I help you, you help me” orientation, or what they call “an honored network of obligation,” has been practiced for centuries.

True community is based on upon equality, mutuality, and reciprocity. It affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together. ~Pauli Murray, activist

3 forms of reciprocity


Reciprocity touches many aspects of our lives and typically takes one of three forms

◊ Generalized reciprocity is an exchange in which a person gives a good or service to another, does not receive anything back at that time, but has the expectation of future repayment. Think of a mentor/mentee relationship or watching the neighbor’s house while they’re on vacation as they’ll do the same for you when you go away.

◊ Balanced reciprocity as defined by Wikipedia “refers to direct exchange of customary equivalents without any delay.” Think bartering, exchanging notes from a business conference with a colleague, a neighborhood boarding up each other’s windows in advance of a storm, or meting out justice in which the punishment fits the crime

◊ Negative reciprocity is the most impersonal form of exchange, in which the parties’ goal is to get as much as they can with little to nothing offered in return. Think someone trying to take advantage.

Back in 1960, Professor Alvin Gouldner suggested “that a norm of reciprocity, in its universal form, makes two interrelated, minimal demands: (1) people should help those who have helped them, and (2) people should not injure those who have helped them.”


The “what’s in it for me” angle


But my two experiences and other research points to people who take a very different view on the value and practices of reciprocity:

◊ “There is considerable evidence that a substantial fraction of people behave according to this dictum: “People repay gifts and take revenge even in interactions with complete strangers and even if it is costly for them and yields neither present nor future material rewards.”

◊ “In a world of winners and losers, there is little room for principles of equity, reciprocity, and impartiality,” writes Professor Walter Fluker in Ethical Leadership.

◊ “Employers preemptively tell new employees not to expect a relationship premised on the fulfillment of mutual commitments.”

Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough. ~Franklin D. Roosevelt

Women and reciprocity


Research shows that women’s voices are heard less in business meetings. My own experience parallels the research:

When Perdue and Perschel tell the following story at women’s conferences and workshops, heads nod in recognition: Have you ever been the sole woman in a meeting and spoken up only to be ignored or negated? Then, within minutes, one of the men at the table says almost the same things as you did and is lauded for his fabulous idea? ~Women and The Paradox of Power, Jane Perdue and Dr. Anne Perschel

Being reciprocal with my female colleagues by sharing one another’s ideas or backing one another up in a meeting certainly benefitted all of us.


Swings in practice


Differences exist in how reciprocity is both viewed and practiced, differences that range from “an honored network of obligation” to social glue to manipulation to something that’s optional.

What are your thoughts about how reciprocity is best practiced?


Image credit before quote added: Pixabay