The Debt Balance:Sour ce of Relational Risks

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Oneimportant effect of the gift is that it serves to recognize the value of the

recipient as aperson.But gift giving is at the same time a very risky activity,

precisely because identity is so crucially involved. One potential risk is

that the recipient does not share the feelings we want to express in our

gift. Our well-intentioned gift may cause disappointment, disapproval,

irritation, or embarrassment in the recipient.With our gift we may have

forced ourselves too much upon the recipient. We sometimes project

our own feelings onto the other person: a gift out of compassion toward

another person may, in the end, reflect our own self-pity; a great love for

us supposedly felt by another person may be reduced to our own feelings

of love for him or her. We may misjudge the taste or the needs of the

recipient, or the nature of our relationship to the other person, causing

him or her to reject the gift. This is an extremely painful event, as the

rejection of the gift may not only reflect that we had a wrong image of

the recipient but also, and more seriously, imply a rejection of our own

personal identity and being by the recipient.

Gifts reflect, confirm, disturb, or injure identities. The motives used in

this interactional process range fromlove and sympathy, to insecurity and

anxiety, to power and prestige, to self-interest and overt hostility. Gifts

may be conciliatory as well as estranging and distancing; they may be

saving as well as sacrificing lives. This enormous psychological potential

of the gift has been largely ignored so far. In order to prevent gifts from

becoming perverted, it is extremely important to keep the subtle balance

between giver and recipient intact. Giver and recipient find themselves

involved in a debt balancewith respect tooneanother. This balance should

neither be in complete equilibrium nor disintegrate into disequilibrium.

Giver and receiver should be in an alternatively asymmetrical position on

this balance, each party properly reciprocating the gift received, thereby

preserving the equilibrium. The extent of asymmetry can only be held in

control by the specific type of feelings usually evoked by a gift: gratitude.

Not being able to feel proper gratitude, exaggerating or underplaying

one’s own gratitude, not acknowledging gratitude in the recipient, underor

overestimating his or her gratitude: all of these imperfections can

severely disturb the debt balance and generate great relational risks.

Three insights can be derived fromthe current chapter that are important

in view of the theoretical model that is developed in the course of this

book and specified inChapter 9.Afirst building stone for our argument is

the reciprocity principle for which empirical support has been presented

in this chapter. The reciprocity of giving and receiving is a crucial element

in our model of solidarity. A second aspect concerns the insight that gifts

reflect identities. Gift exchange is based on the mutual recognition by

givers and recipients of each others’ identity.Without that recognition it

would be impossible to render meaning to gifts themselves; for gifts reveal

both the identity of the giver and his perception of the recipient’s identity.

Finally, the commonly accepted idea that gifts have merely positive consequences

for social relationships is disproved in this chapter. Negative

aspects and consequences are also connected to solidarity, in the sense

that some people are excluded from the community whereas others are

included, although sometimes at the cost of their own autonomy.