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.