One of the first things you learn as an anthropology student is that reciprocity is the glue that binds society together. Reciprocity comes in many forms – it might be that I give you something back to the same value as what you gave me. This is direct reciprocity, straight and simple.
Or it might be that I give you something worth more than what you gave me. This is reciprocity with interest. Then again, I could give someone else a gift to the same value as the one you gave me. This is a whole different ballgame, where networks of givers and receivers navigate streams of different gifts and obligations.
Reciprocity might be the stuff that glues people together, but it also binds people to their gods and the gods to their people. It is the relation, the dynamic, that helps make sense of the world and of the universe.
Reciprocity is the stuff that outlines your rights and obligations, and marks your place in the world. At the same time, it sets boundaries for you and it can be used as a means of control.
There are expectations around reciprocity, like the knowing you’ve got to invite the Peterson’s around because you had supper at their house last week. Or the bringing of hostess gifts, who you invite to your wedding, and the reason why you must invite that awful uncle to all family events. These expectations are social conventions, you are expected to give back when you have received something. It’s just how we do things.
But what when the expectations take overhand? What when the thing I give back is my gratitude and my inferiority? When I bow in the dust and you smile benevolently down on me, a wretched creature? When this is what you expect me to do? As you can see, reciprocity is still a glue, but a hierarchical one. I am firmly glued in position humbly beneath you.
But the world we live in is changing. We have more individual choice than ever before. And one thing that is becoming more and more important is being at peace with one self. Then, coming to understand how an expectation of gratitude is controlling, many people today are re-writing the rules of reciprocity. That means that we still give and we still receive, but in a different dynamic.
We give and receive as much as we feel comfortable doing, freely.
So when I give you of my time, I do so freely. Without an expectation of you giving me anything back. It means that you are free to either give me something in return, or not. Either way, it’s up to me to set the boundaries for what I’m comfortable with.
So when I meet with you, you know it is because I want to see you, not because I feel obliged to. If I don’t want to meet with you, well then I just don’t. No games. Isn’t it refreshing? I think it adds a new dimension of authenticity to human relations, and it liberates us from thinking about hidden agendas.
Just imagine what sort of amazingly gorgeous social glue this form of reciprocity can be, founded on love and self-love and respect. Giving freely.
Vild Prestegard is an anthropologist, holistic therapist, Reiki master and public speaker based in Norway. She is a regular blogger for Cycle Harmony. You’re welcome to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions and comments.