Gift economy: Material things a poor substitute for friendship

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Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

ONE OF two women who were riding a bus suddenly realized she hadn’t paid her fare. “I’ll go right up and pay right away,” she said. “Why bother,” her companion replied. “You got away with it and we’re nearing our destination. So, what’s the big fuss?”

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“I’ve found that honesty always pays,” the other said virtuously, and went up to the bus conductor.

“See, I told you honesty pays!” she said upon her return. “I handed the conductor one hundred pesos, and he gave me a change of P200.”

Now you see, real honest people are different because they make a consistent, deeper, unconditional, and long-lasting connection with others. That’s how professional partnership works. It works the same way with families, neighbors, and friends. To perpetuate true partnerships, whether in the office or in the neighborhood, you have to find meaning that extends beyond material things. I’ve seen this happen even among street dwellers.

Higher education can’t guarantee honesty in people. Look at our politicians and government leaders and you’ll readily understand what I mean. If you’re not strong-willed, you’ll be easily gobbled up by the system, if not the culture.

But in the corporate world, what would bring about strong professional friendship to people? In many Japanese companies, including Toyota, people build their trust accounts through daily interaction that enables them to feel as though they are part of a family or partnership.

Jeffrey Liker and Michael Hoseus, in “Toyota Culture” (2008), cite the work of Robert Levering to explain the “gift economy where things are exchanged without direct compensation based on trust and partnership.” He uses as an example the relationship between neighbors: One neighbor goes on vacation while the other willingly collects newspapers and mail and waters the flower garden.

“There is no exchange of money, just an exchange of assistance and social support. The next time the other neighbor starts a project; say building a shed, the first comes over and spends the day helping her out.”

In psychology, this is often referred to as building an emotional bank account. I’ve experienced it many times before, since more than 30 years ago when I was active in corporate human resources.

We understand the structure behind this. In fact, it’s a universal approach for many of us. In Tagalog, it is referred to as having utang na loob (debt of gratitude), except that such cultural structure becomes overbearing at times, when some people tend to abuse the generosity of their partners or friends.

Just the same, I find the “gift economy” as an important approach to achieving industrial peace and higher productivity in the workplace. Being appropriate and timely is the norm. When giving out some assistance to people, be constantly aware of the mood of the receiver. Regularly and conscientiously assess how your assistance is being received, and adapt accordingly.

Avoid monotony in giving personal help to people. Mix up the pace a little. When you see uncomfortable or bored expressions, loosen up so that your motive would not be suspect. The bottom line is this: People will be a hundred times more likely to respond positively if the emotional gift is not pushed. That’s a pretty sound and practical advice.

Nothing lasts forever—with the possible exception of greedy politicians and deadwood public servants. The gift economy is one important approach to cement relationships with people. As long as you don’t expect to be repaid or the longer the other person repays you, the better.

It’s better that way than suffering through a dull business relationship, so mind-numbingly dreadful that you can’t do anything productive in the office. Why put yourself in that tortuous situation when you can move your way up by offering something to people without them asking for it?

You may not realize it, but aside from the magic words “thank you” and “please”—the most potent is—“How can I help you?”

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.

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1 Comment

  1. Im sorry to say you dont get that in this country. What ive seen you have here is a me me me culture. Its all about me. A simple thing i had a cotton bud come off in my ear & i couldnt get it out. I went to the doctors & as the doctor was busy i asked the receptionist if she could use a pair of tweasers to take it out, she wouldnt. I went outside & saw a vets & told him & he took it out. It took probably 3 or 4 seconds. I said how much & he said give me what you would like to give me. Now i gave him P50, but if he had asked me to take it out of his ear it would have cost him nothing. A young boy struggleing to xcarry a heavy water container in the hot sun & he had to keep putting it down all the workers ( young fit men ) walked straight past him i picked it up & carried it for him, im english & 61 years old. Im not religious at all, im a total non believer, but to help someone in need is good, here people will only help you if you pay them. Any neighbour asks my hep in anything if i can do it i just do it. I expect nothing in return.