Give a Gift without Expecting Something in Return

June 19, 2010 by
Filed under: Leadership, Mentoring, Networking 

In the work of French soci­ol­o­gist, Mar­cel Mauss, it’s stated that “Gifts are never free!”. That when some­one gives another per­son a gift, they are always expect­ing some­thing rec­i­pri­col in return from that per­son. Now how much truth is in that really? Many of my friends and asso­ciates have argued with me when it comes to the notion of there being no such thing as a free gift. Some even have gone so far as to say that one should be wary of an unex­pected gift giver appear­ing before you and giv­ing you a gift. Espe­cially one you didn’t ask for. Is there really such a thing as a free gift? I say there is.

When I was a young child, I remem­ber get­ting sep­a­rated from my mother in a crowded New York City sub­way sta­tion. I remem­ber the fear that over­came me at not know­ing where she was and me being all alone on that sub­way plat­form. When I started yelling out for my mom to see where she was, I also started to walk around look­ing for her. I found my way to where one of the token sta­tions were and just kept on look­ing for my mom and yelling out her name, “Mom!”  “Mama where are you!?!” As you can imag­ine, I started to cry being a lit­tle kid (I was prob­a­bly 4 or 5 years old). A moment later I saw two police offi­cers approach­ing me and ask­ing if I was lost. I told them that “I can’t find my mama (still cry­ing)” At that point one of them reas­sured me that it was going to be alright and not to be afraid any­more.  The same offi­cer stayed with me while the other offi­cer went away prob­a­bly look­ing for my mother.  The offi­cer that stayed with me started ask­ing me ques­tions about my name and the usual expected stuff and then he pro­ceeded to offer me a piece of candy to help make me feel better.

Being a lit­tle kid, the candy did in fact help com­fort me a lit­tle bit. A few sec­onds later, my mom ran up to me and picked me up giv­ing me a big hug say­ing, “I found you!”  The mem­ory of that event never left me. Not just because it was a trau­matic expe­ri­ence for a lit­tle kid such as me at the time, but also because I remem­ber the offi­cer offer­ing me the piece of candy. I didn’t think “why is he offer­ing me a piece of candy when I didn’t ask for one?”  I just gladly accepted it. It did in fact helped to make me feel bet­ter. The offi­cer didn’t expect any­thing back from me nec­es­sar­ily. But in fact he did, and that was to help me feel better.

An Inter­est­ing Con­ver­sa­tion with a Psy­chol­ogy Grad­u­ate Student

When I was in col­lege, I had an inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion with  one of my girlfriend’s friends. She was a psy­chol­ogy grad­u­ate stu­dent and asked me when I offered to help some­one with a project, what I expected back from them. I was a lit­tle sur­prised at the straight for­ward­ness of the ques­tion in addi­tion to the ques­tion itself. I asked her, why do you think I want some­thing in return? She pro­ceeded to tell me that every­one does some­thing in order to get some­thing else in return. She didn’t agree with me in that I didn’t want any­thing in return for help­ing some­one with a project they had. “Every­one always wants some­thing in return or else they wouldn’t do it” she told me. I was a lit­tle sur­prised at her pas­sion on the sub­ject. It made me think for a moment on the sub­ject at which point I told her what I wanted in return. “By help­ing the per­son with the project, I expect him to (hope­fully) get a pass­ing or bet­ter grade on it.” If he wants to help me on some­thing else in the future in some way, shape or form, then that is up to them. I’m not expect­ing any­thing in return. My girlfriend’s friend didn’t agree and told me that didn’t make sense because that is sim­ply how peo­ple are. A per­son never does any­thing for free. Even though this is not the first time I heard this, it is def­i­nitely not the last.

When you give some­one a gift, such as a com­pli­ment, you’re in fact expos­ing your­self to that per­son or to the peo­ple around you. Sim­i­lar to the col­lege story above, when a per­son near you over­hears you giv­ing some­one else a com­pli­ment or offer­ing them help, they may believe that I’m just try­ing to get a date with the per­son, or try­ing to make a good impres­sion, or worse “kiss­ing up” to the per­son. Seth Godin talks about this in his blog post, “Gifts, mis­un­der­stood”.

“Have you ever done some­thing for some­one, not expect­ing any­thing in return from them or any­one else for it?”

I have! Many times in fact! It can be some­thing as sim­ple as giv­ing a per­son a com­pli­ment on a piece of jew­elry they are wear­ing or on a nicely man­i­cured front yard. When I give a per­son a com­pli­ment, am I really expect­ing some­thing back from them? Maybe yes, maybe no. For me sin­cerely mak­ing a per­son feel bet­ter is what I am expect­ing. If that per­son feels bet­ter due to me giv­ing them a sin­cere com­pli­ment or me giv­ing them a gift, then I feel bet­ter.  It actu­ally makes life more enjoy­able for me and I’m sure the per­son receiv­ing the gift.

“Can you truly imag­ine a life where peo­ple only gave oth­ers a gift (whether it be a phys­i­cal object or a ver­bal com­pli­ment) in order to get some­thing directly back?”

How did you feel the last time some­one gave you a gift? How did you feel the last time some­one gave you a com­pli­ment? How did you feel the last time you gave some­one a gift? How about the time before that? How did you feel the last time you gave some­one a sin­cere compliment?

What are your thoughts on the giv­ing of a gift?


11 Intelligent Opinions, Leave Yours on Give a Gift without Expecting Something in Return

  1. Jon Wortmann on Mon, 21st Jun 2010 11:29 am
  2. Hi Gil,

    Love the sto­ries about gifts and the that EVERYONE wants some­thing in return. Com­pet­i­tive soci­ety teaches that you do things to get things. Car­ing world folks do things to do won­der­ful things. The most present peo­ple, the one’s who treat life as a chance to give gifts, enjoy receiv­ing gifts too.

    I just don’t think they go through the cal­cu­lus of what the gifts they give are worth…beyond the plea­sure they get from giv­ing. That’s not naive if it’s truly where your heart is. And, most of us, can tell the dif­fer­ence between gen­eros­ity with­out strings and quid pro quos.

    Well-loved. Like or Dis­like: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  3. Gil Pizano on Tue, 22nd Jun 2010 6:33 am
  4. Well said Jon! It’s so true that many peo­ple don’t truly under­stand, let alone real­ize, the joy of giv­ing with­out strings attached. Thanks for the comments!


    Like or Dis­like: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. Jeremy on Fri, 25th Jun 2010 10:02 pm
  6. Hi Gil,

    I do agree that when you give gifts, you should NOT expect some­thing in return. But I also think we humans have a nat­ural ten­dency to do expect some­thing in return — even if it some­time is such a pos­i­tive thing as mak­ing another per­son feel better.

    Hav­ing said that, I think we should also always be aware of the law of reci­procity (pop­u­lar­ized by Robert Cial­dini). When­ever we receive a gift, we also have a ten­dency to want to return a favor to them.

    I don’t think of it in absolute terms like your friend back in the days, I do think that it’s pos­si­ble that there really are excep­tions to this and that there are instances where peo­ple really give a gift with­out expect­ing some­thing, but I think it’s a tiny minor­ity of instances.

    On an unre­lated side­note (sorry), but what do you use to put the social but­tons on the right side of your web­page (RSS, Twit­ter, tech­no­rati, etc.? I love it!

    Kind regards,
    Jeremy recently posted..By: sil­ver fizzMy Profile

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  7. Dylan Foregger on Sun, 13th Feb 2011 1:23 am
  8. I think a lot of peo­ple are con­fused about the def­i­n­i­tion of gift giv­ing. They want to give, because it feels good. How­ever, if you don’t rec­i­p­ro­cate, they’ll feel bad. This is sub­con­scious think­ing though, and they tend not to real­ize what their own true inten­tions are. This behav­ior sug­gests that the giver is not really inter­ested in giv­ing, but instead there’s some­thing they want from you.
    This isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing. Peo­ple make suit­able exchanges all the time.
    How­ever, it is not the true def­i­n­i­tion of ‘gift’; to give with­out expect­ing return.

    Like or Dis­like: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. Gil Pizano on Sun, 13th Feb 2011 1:28 pm
  10. Thanks Dylan for the cool insights here!


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  11. Wameng on Sat, 3rd Sep 2011 7:48 pm
  12. I do agree with most of you stated here, how­ever for me. The def­i­n­i­tion of gift is gift. A gift is a gift and it means that gift is then meant free isn’t it?
    So when I give some­one some­thing is just to fill my thirst. I feel that I like to give this as a gift to that per­son because I know she or he needs it. For exam­ple, to get a bet­ter grade in class. That grade is filled my thirst and that is exactly what I like to do it.

    Well, if some­how, or some­day that per­son hap­pens to be very suc­cess­ful in life and he wants to pay me back for my gift I would feel guilty. But if he helps me with­out think­ing abou the gift that I used to give him or her then that is great and it’s acceptable.

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  13. Gil Pizano on Sun, 4th Sep 2011 8:54 pm
  14. Wameng, point taken. I agree that a gift is a gift and one should not expect any­thing in return ever. Thank you for shar­ing your thoughts with us on this!



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