Reciprocity: The Ways We Give and Receive

by Martha Hicks

In the style of the former Unifier, I am offering here a theme with an article for suggested reading (like I used to do on the first page).

The intention behind our giving and receiving is the most important thing. When the act of giving is joyful, when it is unconditional and from the heart, then the energy behind the giving increases many times over. But if we give grudgingly, there is no energy behind that giving. If we feel we have lost something through the act of giving, then the gift is not truly given and will not cause increase.” Deeprak Chopra

Several years ago, my adult son and I got into a discussion about reciprocity. If I am honest, I will confess here that my intentions had to do with him taking us, his parents, for granted, rarely remembering birthdays, never bringing hostess gifts for the numerous meals I made or returning favors we had continuously bestowed on him as an adult. It is awkward, at best, to be discussing this topic with one’s own adult child. For this reason, I tried to guide our discussion to be more about the general concept of reciprocity.

My son’s understanding was that giving of any kind of should not be with the expectation of getting anything in return. Any other kind of giving, he felt, was not true giving. “How many times”, he reminded me, “is one obliged to contribute toward gifts in the workplace or to relatives on birthdays or people representing charities at the door because one felt obliged, but resented it later?” He maintained that one should only give if one can afford it and if one is glad to do so and expects nothing in return. My son was probably remembering me, sometime in his youth, expressing annoyance with people who had not even acknowledged the gifts I had sent, let alone shown appreciation.

In this verse from 2 Corinthians 9:7:, it appears that God is basically encouraging the same idea as my son. “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

As I aspire to be this kind of giver, my son’s argument seemed to make sense, and I could see many advantages.

– Gift giving becomes a pleasure and not a chore that has to be done.

– If one has no expectation or getting something back, the action of giving is complete in itself.

– If one has no expectations of an appropriate response from the receiver, there is no disappointment.

– If you give something gladly, even if it is a sacrifice, there are no regrets.

I must admit I have felt conflicted ever since having this discussion, as part of me saw the wisdom in my son’s words, but a part of me rebelled, knowing from experience in dealing with social mores that depending on which country one is living in, one needs a clear understanding of the minimum required reciprocity in order to live harmoniously within the community. Also, taking your parents’ gifts for granted may have eventual consequences. After reading the article by Dr. Shefali, I started to feel less confused.


My hunch is that giving and receiving predates humans. Symbiotic relationships are everywhere to be found: for example, the cleaning symbiosis that takes place in the ocean when prawns and gobies clean fish, receiving nutrients as they remove parasites and dead tissue from their hosts. This is called Mutualism or sometimes Reciprocal Altruism. Another example of this is the symbiotic relationship we have with our pets, where both pets and humans benefit from their interaction. But then there is also Parasitism with one participant taking and giving nothing in return, perhaps even destroying its host in the process.

Because of this discussion with my son, I was motivated to look into the history of reciprocity in humans, and I’ve learned that the first formal acts of reciprocity were actually negative reciprocity. Negative reciprocity is when an action that has a negative effect on someone is returned with an action that has an approximately equal negative effect. For example, if an individual commits a violent act against a person, it is expected that person would return with a similar act of violence. If, however, the reaction to the initial negative action is not approximately equal in negative value, this violates the norm of reciprocity in what is allowable. Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty of the Amorite tribe, reigned from (c.1810 – c.1750 BCE). During his reign, he issued something he claimed was given to him by the god Shamash, the Babylonian god of Justice. This was called the “Code of Hammurabi.” This edict dictated what reciprocity was allowed for crimes, thereby reducing the retaliatory aspects of trying to get back and causing undue harm.

Reciprocity was also a cornerstone of ancient Greece. At the time of Homer, citizens relied on reciprocity as a form of transaction, as there was no formal system of government or trade. In his story of Iliad, Homer illustrates several instances of reciprocal transactions in the form of gift giving, but there were times when direct reciprocity was not possible, specifically in times of great need when a citizen had nothing to give for repayment. In this way, deferred reciprocity was also prevalent in Greek culture at this time. Deferred reciprocity refers to giving a person gifts or favors with the understanding that they will repay this favor at another time when the initial giver is in great need. Odysseus often had to rely on the kindness of human strangers and other mythological creatures to secure resources along his journey.

Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, in their 1977 book Origins: what new discoveries reveal about the emergence of our species and its possible future attribute the very nature of humans to reciprocity. They claim humans survived because our ancestors learned to share goods and services “in an honored network of obligation.” Leakey and Lewin believed that reciprocity creates an interdependent environment where labor is divided so that humans may be more efficient. For example, if one member of the group cares for the children, another member hunts for food for the group, each member has provided a service and receives one in return. In this way, the idea that humans are indebted to repay gifts and favors is an aspect of human culture. (But I am not so sure that reciprocity is unique to humans. I saw a film on feral cat colonies living on the harbor in Finland, where this behavior was also observed. The kitten-watcher was rewarded with scraps after the mother cat returned from her food hunt. Within the cat colonies, feral cats are quite sociable, forming close friendships with other cats and collectively rearing their young.) I think wolves also have a similar set-up within their packs.

As Unitarians, our term “The Web of Life” illustrates this continuous flow of giving and taking, this exchange of goods, services, and the care we endeavor to take of each other and our resources. Cultural anthropologists support this idea in what they call the “Web of Indebtedness” where reciprocity is viewed as an adaptive mechanism to enhance survival. Through the rule of reciprocity, sophisticated systems of aid and trade were possible, bringing immense benefits to the societies that utilized them. It is not surprising that the norm has persisted and dictates our present understanding and behavior.


Reciprocity is a social norm of responding to a positive action with another positive action, rewarding kind actions. Reciprocal actions differ from actions of selfless concern for the well being of others, in that reciprocal actions only follow from others’ initial actions. Altruism is the name social scientists give the unconditional act of social gift-giving without any hope or expectation of future positive responses. Earlier I mentioned another term, Reciprocal altruism, when describing the fish-cleaning prawns. Reciprocal altruism is also referencing the evolutionary paradox of one individual making sacrifices for another unrelated individual.

The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” Pablo Picasso

How is the social norm of reciprocity applied in different societies? I have found that the concept of reciprocity is the same in all societies: Our expectation is that people will respond favorably to each other by returning benefits for benefits. However, the manner which it is practiced can vary a great deal. For me, the USA was different from Australia, which was different from France and again different in Germany. and all those manners were definitely different from former east-block countries I have visited.

Most of us have found ourselves in situations in our own or a foreign country where we have either been overwhelmed with the generosity of the host to the point of discomfort, or the opposite where, after having been invited, the host has forgotten that we were even coming. As a guest, do we give something personal, or flowers, or nothing? What are the expectations of giving and taking at birthdays and holidays? What form of appreciation is socially called for? Each culture has developed their own reciprocity rules:

In Japan, it is polite to offer or receive a gift using both hands. It is customary to wait until later when the giver is not present, to open the gift. Gifts should be nicely wrapped; presentation is as important as content.

In China Often a Chinese person will refuse a gift two or three times before finally accepting it. This does not mean that they do not appreciate the gift. It is rather a way of expressing modesty and good manners. If receiving a gift, there may be an expectation for a reciprocal gift or favor. This sense of reciprocity is something that most Chinese people have learned since they were children, and they are sensitive to the value of favors and gifts. It is common for Chinese people to use gifts to express their appreciation for favors they have received.

In Russia It is inappropriate to give flowers bundled in even numbers as well as yellow flowers, lilies or carnations (which are associated with funerals). Gifts may not always be opened in front of the giver, and some Russians may initially refuse the offer of a gift.

In USA When a gift is given to a person from the U.S., the giver might not receive one in return. Americans often open the gift right away, in front of the giver, so that they can see what it is and express thanks for the item.

In France Good taste is imperative when giving gifts in France and timing is also important. When invited to someone’s home, most French bring a gift and present it before the meal or party. Good gifts reflect an appreciation of knowledge and the arts, such as books and music. When invited to someone’s home, flowers are generally appropriate, but avoid chrysanthemums (used for funerals), red roses (exchanged between lovers and very good friends), and carnations (thought to bring bad luck). Fine chocolates or champagne are also appropriate gifts.

Germany Greet everyone in the home before you do anything else. A gift should be one that is small and of good quality, but not overly expensive. Flowers in uneven numbers and unwrapped, wine, chocolates, or a small gift that represents your home country or region are also received gladly. Gifts are usually opened when received.

Arab countries – never offer or receive a gift with the left hand. Refuse tea or coffee a few times to show respect. Be careful not to compliment an object the host owns too much, or they will feel obliged to give it to you. Leave a small amount of food on your plate or you will keep getting more helpings.

An arch consists of two weaknesses, which, leaning on each other, become a strength.” Leanardo da Vinci

Writing this for you has helped me understand the conflicting sentiments regarding giving and receiving, and I was quite pleased to find the following quote which has given me, in a concise way, exactly the clarity I was looking for, and now my inner peace has been restored.

To live a happy life, you’ve got to keep transactions in one box and giving/receiving in another box. Transactions are not bad. They are a part of life. But they must be conscious and expressed and mutually agreed upon. Giving, on the other hand, should never come with the expectation of getting.” Teal Swan