By definition, a gift is ‘something that is bestowed voluntarily and without compensation.’ When I give a gift or offer my support or my time, I do so freely, because I want to, because it feels good to, and with no expectations of the recipient. When someone offers something to me, I assume they do so with the same intent, and accept their gift gratefully and graciously. More and more, however, I am learning that some ‘gifts’ aren’t true gifts at all.
There is a flip-side to the expression ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.’ While you shouldn’t assess a gift’s value, you should be aware some gifts come with strings attached: an expectation and obligation of return. This expectation is never spoken, but recorded in the giver’s emotional ledger, mentally chalked up as something you must repay to an equivalent value (of their measure, not yours) within a time-frame (set by them) that is also unspecified.
This is not to say I don’t feel grateful when people do things for me or give things to me – I do, immensely. Rather, I don’t assume when someone offers a gift (be it time, money or support) that I will be held to account for it. This is because the ‘ledger’ is invisible, unspoken. I am expected to read the gift-giver’s mind and know that their offer of time, money or support, is not in fact a gift, but an exchange.
An example of where the ‘exchange’ is slightly more transparent is where my father offered to ‘give’ my sisters and me our inheritance early – provided we ask for it. Both my sisters have taken him up on this offer, but I have not, and won’t. Aside from my views on inheritances in general (I try to encourage my mum to spend her money during her lifetime rather than miss out on life’s experiences because she is worried about not leaving anything behind), I feel that if I ask for the money, it is no longer a gift. It comes with obligation. If it was a true gift, freely given with no expectation of return, he could simply send me a cheque.
Another complication is my assumption that people will ask for what they want or need. This is something I am able to do fairly readily (with some exceptions), and so I assume that if somebody needs me, they will give me a call, or that if I offer to help out when they need it they will say yes. I suppose I should know better. I grew up with a mother for whom ‘fine’ or ‘if you want to’ meant ‘don’t you dare’ and ‘it’s not fine at all’, but my response instead has been to develop a certain level of intolerance to that kind of passivity (and its flip-side, passive-aggression), and an almost stubborn insistence on taking people at their word. If they don’t speak up, they miss out. This doesn’t mean I don’t offer to help unless someone speaks up, but I expect that when I do offer, they will say yes or let me know what they need, even if that need is a sympathetic ear, or a request to be left alone.
The problem is that in relationships my preparedness to ask for what I want and need and my assumption that others will do the same, means I can find myself clocking up an unspoken debt on someone’s ledger.
Not having a ledger myself, when someone does something wonderful for me, offers their assistance or support in a time of need, I acknowledge and appreciate their efforts. I also take from that experience and learn how I might do the same for someone (possibly someone else) in a similar situation when and if the opportunity arises. I suppose on the ledger-system, I am paying my invisible and unacknowledged ‘debt’ forward, rather than back, but this does nothing to change my ‘balance’ in the ‘creditor’s’ eyes.
Repayment in kind also may not register with the creditor. They may expect like for like (not that they ever tell you this), so while they are buying you presents or helping you move house, you’re listening to their relationship troubles or looking after their pets, neither of which does anything to lower your debt.
Sometimes the creditor will also have an expectation of return at a particular point in time that it may not be possible to meet, and so no matter what else is happening or what other gifts you have given, your repayment ‘bounces’. Many years ago I missed a friend’s birthday because it coincided with the only time of year that my husband and I could both take leave to travel. She never mentioned it at the time, but dropped it in conversation years later somewhat nastily. Her unspoken expectation meant that I had unwittingly disappointed her, and no matter that I planned around her at other times, those ‘payments’ did not register towards my debt.
Lastly there are those who keep ledgers who expect you to mind-read the ledger’s existence and who need you to remain in debt to them. As David Wong writes in ‘5 Ways You’re Accidentally Making Everyone Hate You’, for these kinds of people this personal ledger disparity is about power: as long as they feel they are doing more for you than you for them, they have something over you, and that’s exactly how they want it. These are the people who always buy you gifts that substantially exceed the monetary value of yours, and who show up to a party you’re hosting with half a dozen dishes and three bottles of wine when most people would bring one of each at most. For these people nothing you ever do will repay your debt because a weird kind of reverse ‘interest’ accumulates: as soon as you pay the amount ‘owed’, they will up the ante. To repay again will leave you broke.
Luckily I have other friends in my life who approach the giving of gifts in the same way as me, and who don’t keep a tally of who-did-what-for-whom, and who I assume (like me) will say no when they need to and yes when they want help. Undoubtedly one person will end up doing more for the other at different points, listening more than talking, spending more time or money or effort, because people have different needs at different times, and that’s the way life tend to pan out. As corny as it sounds, I figure we have a lifetime for things to more or less balance out.
Then there are situations where ledger or no, giving and giving and giving does not actually help the recipient and may become detrimental to you. Say someone has an addiction or a mental health problem and won’t seek professional help. Your giving too much could be enabling them to remain in a bad situation. In these instances cutting your losses and walking away might be the healthiest option for you both.
The underlying problem with the whole ledger-approach is that it’s not made explicit. People have different strengths and abilities and so show their love and kindness in various ways, while individuals’ circumstances vary and each situation requires its own approach. This means gifts may not come in the same form as they were given, at a particular point in time, or even to the person from whom they were once received. I don’t keep tabs and I don’t keep score, but on balance I feel that I give as much as I receive, and to be honest if I knew that a present or an offer of assistance or time came with an unspoken obligation, I might find a way to politely decline. Perhaps the old expression would be better worded, ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, but do ask what the giver wants from you in return.’