Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Free Market in Friendship

It rankles to think of friendship as a marketplace transaction. It rankles even more to see the giving and receiving of favors between friends in terms of banking.

As Elizabeth Bernstein sees it, when people do favors for their friends they are making deposits in their bank accounts. If it should happen that the giving friend needs a favor from the receiving friend he is making a withdrawal from his account. If the favor is not extravagant or unreasonable the friend is morally obligated to do as requested.

Bernstein recounts the story of Christina Steinorth, a woman who spent two decades being an exceptionally giving friend. She ran errands, babysat and gave countless hours of free professional advice to her friend. We will call the friend Nancy.

Being a giving person Steinorth did not expect very much in return. She would have been right to believe that those who give in the expectation of receiving favors in return have lesser character than those who give because they enjoy giving.

But then, one day, she and her husband were trying to adopt a child and she needed some letters of recommendation.

She asked Nancy. Naturally, Nancy was thrilled to have the chance to reciprocate the many favors Steinorth had done for her over the years. But then, Nancy did not write the letter. Steinorth asked again. Nancy said that she would do it. She didn’t. When Nancy finally did write the letter, the application was no longer valid.

The two women are no longer friends.

You will be thinking that Steinorth is an unusually poor judge of character. If it took her twenty years and a crisis to discover that Nancy was all take and no give, she does not understand friendship.

Grant that Steinorth was an exceptionally giving person. Grant that she must have been thinking that: “it is more blessed to give then to receive.” Still, when you give and give and give without expectation of any return on investment, you are within your rights to ask a favor of your friend. Besides, nothing would have prevented Nancy from offering to do a favor or two for Steinorth over those years.

Steinorth was so generous that she blinded herself to her friend’s character flaws. Obviously, she should not have been offering free professional advice on an ongoing basis. She should have noticed that her gestures of friendship were not being reciprocated and should have scaled back.

Extremes do not make the rule. They change the game.

If you give too much and pretend that you do not expect anything in return you are not exactly making a deposit in a bank; you are producing a situation where the other person is so totally in your debt that there is no favor they could possible refuse you.

How many men shower women with expensive gifts in order to put them in a position where they cannot refuse?

How many women refuse such gifts on the grounds that they do not want to be so indebted to the gift-giver?

It should not take twenty years to figure out that a friend is not really a friend. Bernstein explains some of the ways you can find out sooner, rather than later, and save yourself what turns out to have been an abusive relationship in which you were the enabler.

Bernstein writes:

When making a new friend, pay attention early on to the other person's communal orientation. Does he ask about you and actually pay attention to your answer? Is she willing to do something you suggest doing, or work around your schedule? Not everyone is capable of giving at the same level. But if you are aware of who you are dealing with, you will be less likely to have expectations that won't be met.

If you are sufficiently attentive, you can usually tell the difference between someone who always talks about himself and someone who engages in an exchange of information. You can also tell the difference between someone who hangs on your every word but says nothing of himself and someone who talks about himself after you talk about yourself.

You should also be aware of who offers and who does not. If you get to the point where you have to ask, you are putting your friend in an awkward position, because you are implying that he is not generous enough to think of offering something himself. A true friend offers before you need to ask.

One does not know how Steinorth asked Nancy for a letter of recommendation, but if such a situation arises it is always better to mention in passing that you need some letters of recommendations. A true friend will offer to write one immediately and will discharge the task within a very short period of time.

Someone you have to ask and to ask again is not a friend.

Friendship is a free market transaction. You need to learn how to conduct it as a mutual exchange, seeking harmony. You should always try to avoid descending into a drama over who owes what to whom.


Anonymous said...

But drama is so EXCITING!!! Who has time to take responsibility for their time? What else would we have to talk about???

One must wonder what Christina Steinorth could be doing with her life if she wasn't bitching, moaning and complaining to Elizabeth Bernstein. Then again, what would Steinorth do otherwise? For that matter, what would Bernstein be doing without it?


Angus said...

The comment was obviously written by "Nancy", or a "friend" just like her who obviously has no friends herself (trailer trash).

It's so easy to attack one when you are afraid to mention your name and stand behind your words.

The truth hurts doesn't it?

Glengarry said...

Rollo Tomasi mentions a similar idea, "relational equity", in the context of relationships. Another sort of investment that can quickly become worthless.