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

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  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.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  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!



    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

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    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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