In December 2001, my husband and I acquired Argus- an English Springer Spaniel that we rescued from a shelter. As we both work, I immediately went about finding a dog walker and did so within a day. I will call the dog walker- Jane.  Up until last June, Jane has walked and dog sat not only Argus but our more recent Springers- Cookie and Buddy (We said good bye to Argus in 2013 after he developed spleen cancer.)

Our sixteen-year relationship with Jane  ended abruptly when we asked her to dog sit one more time last June and she could not do it. I also had the impression that she was no longer greatly interested in dog walking and dog sitting  and so when we returned from vacation, I found other dog walkers and sitters.

Then, over the holidays last December, Jane called wanting to come over with gifts for the dogs as she missed seeing them! The call took me by surprise. As we were out of town at the time, I told her that her visit would have to wait until we got back to town. Then, she called last weekend, asking if she could come by. Again, I put her off.

After I hung up, I asked myself why was I avoiding her visit and her wanting to give the dogs a holiday gift?

I am in the middle of reading Influence: Science and Practice by Robert B. Cialdini (4th ed. 2001) for a book club meeting early next month. As I thought about one of the first chapters I just read, it hit me: Reciprocity. I do not want to feel beholden to Jane and due to this rule of give and take, I will feel so if I allow her to come over, visit with the dogs and give them holiday gifts. I have moved on from that relationship and do not want to feel as if I must return the “favor” in some way.

As Cialdini explains, the rule of reciprocation is simple but powerful. It “…says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided.” (Id. at 20.)  In fact, “… by virtue of [this] rule, we are obligated to future repayments of favors, gifts, invitations, and the like.” (Id., emphasis original.) We acquire a sense of “future obligation.” (Id. at 21.) And… this is so, even if the favor is uninvited and unasked for (Id. at 30) as in my situation. Cialdini cites anthropologist Marcel Marcus as explaining that any gift giving situation, three obligations are created: an obligation to give, an obligation to receive, and an obligation to repay. (Id. at 31.)

Think about the reaction you might have when another directly refuses to accept or receive your gift.  You might feel rejected, hurt, angry and perhaps humiliated. So, to avoid these reactions in the giver, we “graciously” accept an unwanted gift. But by doing so, we have “…reduced our ability to choose those to whom we wish to be indebted and puts the power in the hands of the others.” (Id. at 31.)

This is why, whenever someone invites us over to dinner, we feel obliged to return the favor and have them come over to dinner at our house at some time in the future, or if they treat us to lunch, we “repay” it by treating them at a later date.

If we do accept the gift, but do not “repay” the obligation, we will be labeled as a moocher, ingrate, and will be disliked in our social group. We may be shunned and shamed. (Id. at 34.)  So, most of us, to avoid these highly disquieting and discomforting feelings, will often pay back more than what we received. (Id.)

No doubt, Jane’s motives in wanting to visit with the dogs and give them a gift are nothing more than as stated. There is no ulterior motive; but, what Jane does not realize is that it creates a heavy psychological conundrum for me.  Cialdini suggests that one defense to this rule is to prevent its activation which is what I am trying to do. Another is to simply accept the offer for what it is fundamentally, and not for what it may represent. That it is simply a gift with “no strings attached.” (Id. at 48-50.)

As I am not sure that I can do the latter, my “gut” has been telling me to avoid the situation. Whether this will work in the long run, only time will tell.

But, even the simplest of gestures can be fraught with complexities.

…. Just something to think about.


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