the neighborly thing to do – gift economy in everyday life

The recent talk on gift exchange has me thinking about areas in my everyday life where a sense of in-exact obligation to repay a gift expresses itself. Part of the reason for thinking about everyday examples of non-market equivalences that bind is that they are organic to our culture and custom. They might give insight into deeply rooted mechanisms of status change and obligation that often pass invisible, while we just assume that everyone does things out of a motivation of  calculated profit (it is amazing how much this analytic myth conditions our eyes).

Yesterday I wrote about the “take a penny, give a penny” dishes that are near almost every small store register. Today I am taken back to an experience I had when I first moved into this house. We live up near a state park, more than an hour above nyc. It is a pretty small town up in the hills, and not the kind of property keeping I’ve ever been exposed to. We rent the house. It’s a culdesac and most of the home lawns are pretty well kept, hedges trimmed etc.

The Man Next Door: Positive Debt

My next door neighbor is a wonderful man. Salt of the earth, once raised on a farm. Now in his 70’s he is still country strong and works his property with effortless detailing and cultivation. Open-hearted, not nosy in the least, and very quiet, the very epitome of what a good neighbor is. When I first moved in I just let the hedge grow. I’m not a manicured yard kind of fellow, and I like things growing a bit wild around the house. But admittedly the Forsythia hedge grows fast and a little too strongly. That late summer Vinny, when with the electric clippers out trimming his own hedge, knocked on my door and offered to trim a little off mine. The truth was, I relieved. I didn’t have the tool, and it would look a bit nicer. Again, I’m not really a handy tool guy.

So he just trimmed it right up, careful not to get too extreme with it, and probably relieved himself of having to look at the wayward shoot and stems that had gotten a little excessive. What followed though was really a revealing adventure in Gift Economy. He trimmed it a few more times that summer, whenever he headed over to his own and the trimmer was humming. And I developed a deep sense of appreciation for his work and care. Well within me I got the sense that I wanted to repay him, not to make it even, but really to let him know how moved I was.

I asked him directly: What can I do for you? He said, “Nah, it’s nothing. Maybe a six pack of beer once in a while.”

The Good Problem of Repayment

The problem was that the value of what he was doing for me, to me personally, far exceeded what a six pack of beer was. In fact, there was a double problem. One didn’t want to “pay” him as if he was doing work for me, because this would reduce the status of what he was doing. He was not “doing work”. But also I wanted to express the significant well-spring of my heart that felt great on having such a wonderful man living next to me, making me feel at home in the neighborhood, and yet doing this appropriately to a quiet, man-of-few-words, old school man.

Well, as is my way, it didn’t go so well. There I was in the grocery store aisle trying to pick out a six pack of Coors Light (which he said he liked), and it just didn’t seem right. He had trimmed the hedge a few times already, enjoying what he was doing, shaping up the next door look. So I got him a case (or maybe it was even two?!, it has been several years now). I put it on his doorstep with a note because he seemed like a fellow who didn’t like having his privacy disturbed. And I felt I had expressed my appreciation.

Well, it turns out that this was a little much. Ha. I think he got in a little trouble with his wife for having so much beer in the house – he’s not an alcoholic afterall! – and gently suggested that a smaller amount, and making it Diet Pepsi might be better. And thank you very much for all the beer, don’t know what I’m going to do with it!

So things evolved. I bought him a couple of six packs of diet soda, but pretty soon it became apparent that the Gift of the hedging could not be repaid, in the sense that there was not real purchase of something that really was reciprocal to what he was doing. What he was doing was taking care of me and my house, out of the surplus of the things he valued and what he was very skilled at. What has become of this is perhaps the most key aspect of Gift giving. It is not just that things are exchanged in some sort of back-scratching passing of gifts back and forth – sometimes it is just like that, when it develops a ritual of appropriateness though. It is that status is changed. Relationships become defined by the gift itself, and it’s acceptance.

The Change in Status

Vinny watches over me and my house. He quietly, as an older and life-wise man, is guardian. Out of his surplus of dignity and attentiveness he sets just the right tone. He comes out when I can’t get my car out of the ice, hearing the wheels spin, and shows me a technique I would never have thought of. He greets my dog when she breaks free from the porch, and puts her back in, without saying a word. I think it would be a mistake to calculate any of this status position as the pursuit of profit analogized to money. It is deeper than that, and much richer.

What this means for businesses that want to create and curate customer/user donation – whether it merely be word of mouth (retention) as Stan Phelps @9INCHmarketing brings out, or substantive contributions to product content or design – is that the thing to watch is how status changes, and not what exact payments there are. The dis-equal, un-repayable, signification of surplus passing of gifts creates bonds that lift each the giver and the receiver (in most cases). They change the status of each. We in business need ways to create spaces and means of gift passing that sew together a space where the attachment becomes more and more meaningful, especially when considering situations where market economy logic threatens to signal the end of the relationship with every exchange.

In fact this is the key to the value of the “social” in Social Media. It is the opportunity to inspire and build the relationships that once grounded customer/company loyalties in other commerce eras. Once it was the talk at the small town storefront, then it became the salesman at the door, or the dealership. then the spokesman on the television. The Social Media channel, and the digital spaces of donation that are related to it, are specific compliments to the now more removed and quickened means of commerce today. The chance is to engage user status in a new and vital way, through donation.

Add to the Gift Economy Conversation

I’ve been putting short notes on Gift Economy and tracking conversations under the hashtag: #Gifteco. Feel free to add to it with your own thoughts.


20 thoughts on “the neighborly thing to do – gift economy in everyday life

  1. Great insights Kevin. Lagniappe (creole for ‘the gift’) is born out of the gift economy. It’s about the idea of g.l.u.e or giving little unexpected extras to your customers. Exceeding expectations instead of meeting them like in a typical market economy.
    I think most companies view social media the wrong way. True social is not media at all, it’s about ‘me’ the customer.

    Unfortunately most companies view it as another channel to push out their messages.
    It’s my belief that the real way for companies to leverage social media is by giving their customers something to talk, tweet, blog and post to Facebook about. The customer experience is the only thing they truly have control over. By taking a ‘gift economy’ approach and giving little extras they trigger the benefits of providing surplus. Those benefits have 3 positive effects: differentiation (stand out from competition), retention (create a bond that encourages recipocity) and word of mouth (something to talk about).


    ‘the longest and hardest nine inches in marketing . . . is the distance between the brain and the heart of your customer’

    • I can now see what you mean more clearly. And yes, isn’t that the way it is. If ever your experience of a product or a service exceeds expectations, the “x” you thought you paid for, a certain aura surrounds the exchange, and you want to repeat it.

      And I completely agree that customers WANT to talk (donate) conversation about a product. If Amazon did anything else for the world, they proved that.

      I love your contribution to the Gift Economy talk from the Lagniappe perspective.


      • Stan, I completely agree. Customers do want that platform on which they can talk and share. That’s well and good and social media 101 – but to really stand out, a brand needs to give some gifts. Your point about Amazon is great — I actually just wrote a post about why consumers spend hours writing detailed product reviews. It’s foremost to help their friends and networks and to reaffirm their own identities.

        • Hey Emily,

          Would love to see that blog post on customer reviews. Why not link it here? I think you are right on it about identity affirmation in the context of their networks, as well has having some kind of “public” presence, their own little mark on the Wall.


  2. The fact that you give this so much thought reveals many positive things about you.

    That you think at all about what it means to be equitable in any specific situation — it almost matters more than whether or not you happen to get the “exchange” perfectly right.

    I’m concerned that, as a culture — in our propensity toward mania and narcissism — we might be losing our common-sense ability for reciprocity.

    I’m not kidding. I’m really concerned about it.

    • Dane, I agree that there may be a bit too much concentration on the ‘zero-sum’ game … that there is only so much pie to go around. I have always found that, as I give, I receive ten+++ – fold. Often the exchange is not in kind – the benefit I receive is simply the wonderful feeling of helping someone else … (and, as corny as that may sound, it’s true. Besides, I don’t want to come back next time as a water buffalo up to my girth in mud!)

      This post, Kevin, is a great reminder that appreciation, understanding, compassion, and friendship are often the best ‘exchange’. Wonderful thoughts – thank you!


      • Tobey,

        This is why you are one of my favorite people on Twitter. I feel that you get in a large sense what works at a very deep level. My theory is that all of social media is structured around gift exchange where it is never equal. But the whole world really is structured that way, beneath it all. The gifts between us are those that create the bonds that allow all the other games of equivalence to be played, including the “zero-sum” game.

        As it so happens, Vinny’s wife of many, many years died two days ago. So I will have a chance to “pay back” the goodness he has given me. A very good man.


    • Dane,

      I understand that you are concerned, or why you are concerned, but if I am right about social media it means that a positive form of debt is grounding one of the biggest changes in human communication and group making. It would suggest that “gift economy” driven relations, relations structured by a natural sense of giving and giving back never made ” = ” are on the rise. It is a positive sign.

      Thanks for your comment, and the positive words as well.


  3. Kevin, the point is not so much about keeping score as it is about doing something meaningful. To your neighbor, a 6-pack is perfect. He really just wants to know that you appreciate him. Remembering him and buying any heartfelt gift would have been enough. It’s the same with social media. Remembering to say something nice, revealing something a little personal, using a real name. Most are so busy manipulating, they forget real people are behind the scenes, with their own issues, lives and distractions. In the short time I’ve been on social media, I’ve found the best way to break through is to be a little selfless, helpful when I can, playful, truthful, appreciative and trustworthy. These are the gifts I try to give and appreciate receiving. I can tell you feel same way.

    • Thanks Cynthia. I guess for me a 6-pack wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t enough for the thanks that I felt. I completely understand of course that the 6-pack was appropriate. But the way it worked out into extended dis-equilibrium actually was perfect. The relationship evolved into a positive debt that bound me to him. As I mentioned to Tobey above, things took a bit of a turn for the terrible for Vinnie, his wife died two days ago. So the un-equal relationship between us now swings. I have the opportunity to give him support, quietly, out of the respect I have for him over time. It seems that this the way it goes in life, the giving passes between us.

  4. Your words deeply resonated within my soul. In a quid pro quo world, the gift economy theory lends humanity to a human endeavour that has so often devolved into nothing but manipulation, deception and deceit. Companies and individuals alike cannot risk “making profit” at the expense of our soul. Thanks for offering another alternative to do business which values dignity, righteousness, and the truth.


    • Thanks Sid,

      I truly do think that at least in this stage in development social media has become something of a corrective to the market. Not the usual kind of market correction, more an ethical, or moral one. A certain kind of re-humanization of exchange. Of course these bonds were always there, beneath quid pro quo, but it is significant that they now have taken on a new and somewhat significant social form.

      best to you,

  5. Kevin.

    The post is inline with a thought I shared with a friend two days ago. Love isn’t when you give expecting a payback (Payback comes, but don’t expect it)

    Your neighbour. He appears to have done it willinly. As long as we are not compelling ourself to pay back kindness, I think it’s cool.

    On twitter. Should I ReTweet you because you ReTweet me? Yes/No. Individual would determine what works. Relationship Management & giving back can be tricky, you know?

    Great piece 🙂

  6. Hey Kevin, I enjoyed reading your post here. The story of your neighbor,Vinny,is a nice reminder of “community”, which is almost a lost commodity in today’s “keep to your own” society. The giving spirit is so evident and alive in social media channels and I do believe it transcends into our daily lives (IRL). All my best, John

    • Hey John, That’s what I am seeing. I’m seeing community values of past times coming back through social media values. And completely so that social media and IRL are interwoven, very real indeed.

      Thanks for your thoughts and reading. Look forward to more community building as we go.


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