We often think that the best gifts are given “with no strings attached.” But what if we are wrong? When is a gift more than just a gift?
In the early 20th century, French sociologist and anthropologist Marcel Mauss observed the practice of gift giving, called potlatch, among indigenous tribes along the Pacific Northwest. Through this study he formed the theory of reciprocity - when gifts are given with an expectation of return, relationships are first formed, then strengthened, and ultimately endure. His essay, The Gift, was published in 1925 and is a foundational work in social anthropology by understanding the way in which giving and receiving creates deep social links between two peoples.
His theory of reciprocity works like this: when one group offers a gift to another, the receiver is honor bound to give back another greater gift so as to remain in equal standing and be free from the shame of social debt. The original giver, in turn, must then do the same, and thus begins a cycle of giving. Over time, the result of this reciprocal nature of giving ultimately creates relational bonds, as the gift carries with it a piece of the giver. Thus, by maintaining social expectations, the two groups give and receive parts of one another and are thus bound together.
You can think of it like sewing two fabrics. The needle is the gift, traveling back and forth from one fabric to another. But with that needle comes the thread, a string attached, and with the gift comes parts of the giver. As they reciprocate their gift exchange they find they are being tied together in an ever strengthening bond.
Reciprocity is not charity. While charity certainly has its virtues, it also comes with its share of faults. In charity, the giver is in an elevated position above the receiver, as the receiver is unable to give back in equal measure and thus maintain social standing. Honor is left to only one side, and the result prevents the relational bonding that could otherwise be fulfilled.
This summer, I had the privilege of traveling to Uganda for the second visit of our Global Cohort program. I entered the trip with expectations that it would be like most short-term trips: fun, engaging, and helpful, but minimal in relationships as a lack of familiarity and reciprocity would lead to polite boundaries.
What I experienced, however, was something else entirely. The best way I can describe it was like being dropped into the middle of a family reunion, where individuals with generations of bonding were enjoying the sweet moments of shared company. Instead of formal introductions of people meeting in person for the first time, I saw deep and long embraces, tears shed, and endlessly joyful conversations. It blew away my expectations of what could happen in such a short time.
The difference? Reciprocity. Over the last year, these Ugandan entrepreneurs had been matched with Companions, regular men and women who volunteered to come alongside with a sole relational purpose, sharing together about their families, their hopes, their struggles, and their lives. Through regular video calls and online chats, they had met each other on a level field and bonded over equal giving and receiving of time and energy, and being together in person was the climax of a year of shared reciprocity. In that time they became like family, devoted to one another in a true kindred exchange.