25 Sep 2023

The Rules of Reciprocity

Reciprocity ­ – the notion that we pay back what we have received from others – underpins many of our social interactions. The currency of this transaction can be extremely diverse, ranging from comparatively trivial favours, loans and hospitality to much more substantial acts of friendship, such as providing care during an illness or helping someone to move house.

Whatever the nature of the gesture, it is generally acknowledged that one good turn deserves another and that social bonds are strengthened by countless acts of reciprocity. It is therefore important that we are attuned to the obligations of reciprocity and are not found wanting – being neglectful of these social obligations can be the reason for many a failed friendship and can ultimately lead to social ostracism.

Don’t Expect Payment in Kind

One of the main social stumbling blocks when it comes to this type of exchange is the notion that a favour that is freely given, with no strings attached, must be matched with something that is of equal value. This misconception can lead to many instances of social awkwardness. It is perfectly normal for a friend who is wealthier, or luckier than you, to make a generous gesture towards you that cannot possibly be equally reciprocated. But that should never stop you from accepting the generosity; instead, you should think of creative ways of ‘repaying’ the debt. If, for example, a friend lends you a holiday home, then you could stock their store cupboard with delicious items from the local deli, or home-made chutneys, or leave half a dozen bottles of well-chosen wine. As long as it looks as if you have thought carefully about your gesture (even if it is a small one), your friend will be more than satisfied. Sometimes, just hand-writing an effusive thank-you letter or sending a well-chosen card with a handwritten personal message, is sufficient.

It is always possible to find ways of repaying generosity, even if you choose not to spend money. Offering the gift of your time or a helping hand (DIY, gardening, cooking, childcare etc) will be appreciated. Being available to help a friend through a crisis, to listen and to provide support and advice is invaluable.

Always Offer Reciprocal Hospitality

Inevitably, you will know some people who are inveterate socialisers, who love hosting events, operate an open-door policy and always welcome guests to their home. You might find it is impossible, or undesirable, to keep up with their level of conviviality, but it is important that you appear to be trying. There is no rule that hospitality is always reciprocated on a tit for tat basis (although many people choose to operate in this way), but it is important that you are, within reason, willing to offer return invitations. You might not be matching your host invite for invite, but at least you are opening your doors and endeavouring to pay them back.

You will need to be the judge of what is reasonable. You may theorise that a formal dinner is an acceptable return for two or three informal lunches, and a very sociable friend may well agree that this is a perfectly adequate arrangement. The important thing is not to turn into a person who is always taking hospitality and never giving. There are always ways of offering reciprocal hospitality: even if you are a lousy cook who is constitutionally incapable of holding a decent dinner party, you can still repay your friends’ generosity by inviting them out to dinner, or taking them to the theatre, opera etc. They will understand that this is your way of repaying their hospitality and will be satisfied.

Prioritise Reciprocal Communication

Reciprocity isn’t just about actually doing things for one another, it’s also about being aware of other people, paying attention to them, answering their texts, calls and emails and ensuring that communication is two-sided.

We’ve all had friends who are bad communicators, who let texts and emails languish unanswered, who never initiate contact. The easy back and forth of effective communication is just not attainable with people like this and you will have to decide how much non-responsiveness you can tolerate.

Given that, overall, most people hate being ignored, strive to be a good responder. The best option is to answer all communications in a timely manner (this is also an excellent policy professionally). If you’re not always reliable about responding, try and keep an internal tally of the contacts you have initiated over the last few weeks. If you have not heard from someone in a while, accept that you might be the one who is at fault because you have not reacted to their last communication.

Nobody wants to be the person who is always (virtually) knocking at their friends’ doors, seeking them out, making suggestions for meeting and so on. Don’t relegate your friends to this frustrating position: ensure that you are also an initiator. Otherwise, you might well jeopardise the balance of your relationships, turning your friends into supplicants and making yourself the elusive power-wielder. This is unlikely to end well.

Be Flexible about Reciprocity

While some friends bounce invitations, visits, communications and favours back and forth with clockwork regularity, it’s important to recognise that everyone is different and the ties that bind us are not always so clear-cut. Some of us have friends who disrupt these stately patterns: they are chaotic or unpredictable, they are going through a life stage that is all-consuming (eg new parenthood), they are impulsive improvisers or entrenched procrastinators. If you know them well, you will recognise these characteristics and, while you may occasionally find them frustrating, you will tolerate them and accommodate their peculiarities. 

If a friend who is normally responsive appears to go to ground, don’t jump immediately to the most paranoid conclusion, and theorise that you have been dropped or rejected. Accept the possibility that the friend is dealing with a personal crisis or is overwhelmed by conflicting demands. You might also consider that the non-reciprocity has a more troubling root – something might have gone wrong, and your friend might be in need of help. Always play safe and approach this issue tentatively (“Is everything okay? I haven’t heard from you for ages”), rather than going in with all guns blazing.

Don’t Forget about Altruism

The regular give and take of friendship is an effective way of sustaining social relationships, but sometimes it’s a good idea simply to give to strangers and acquaintances without the expectation of any payback. Giving money to homeless people or buskers, volunteering, sitting on committees, freely offering your services as a driver, shopper or caterer, are all altruistic gestures. You may not receive a tangible return, but you will feel better about yourself.


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