Monday, November 26, 2012

4 days following

This morning on NPR there was a story on the unspoken, “Rule of Reciprocation”. It was based on the work of a Sociologist at Brigham Young University in 1974. As the story goes, he picked up housing directories for a few local communities and randomly sent out around six hundred Christmas cards including within: holiday wishes, notes, and even pictures of his family. Five days later he started receiving cards back in the mail. Only one or two at first but then it started picking up to twelve, fifteen a day. In all, he received over two hundred cards, all from total strangers. What would compel a complete stranger to reply to something from someone he didn’t know? According to him and another professor they interviewed, it was the Rule of Reciprocation at work.
The Rule, it seems, is ingrained in us starting in childhood. You see it being taught as sharing, Valentine’s, thank you notes to grandparents, etc. “Do unto others…” as another famous rule goes. It’s almost instinctual.
The Rule stretches from gift giving to saying hello to someone passing by who said hello to you. When you don’t respond to the gift or the hello, you notice it, you feel uncomfortable, out of balance; that’s the Rule at its core. The second professor went on show examples such as the address labels we get in the mail accompanied by a donation request or the piece of candy the waitress brings with our bill at a restaurant. When we get something we didn’t expect to receive, we often feel a need to return the gesture. (The story also spoke of religious groups and politicians, but the other stuff was more resonating to me.)*
These kind of studies fascinate me; anything that has to do with human behavior. When I used to send cards for the holiday, there were always a few straggler cards that would come late in the month from people on the fringes of my life, and I always wondered if they sent one only because they received one from me. After listening to the story this morning, I think I found my answer.
I wonder how far the Rule of Reciprocation really goes as we become adults, though. Even in the NPR story, while the sociologist received over two hundred cards back, that means four hundred people didn’t feel enough pressure or see enough need to reply. And in regards to those address labels, I’ve only ever given to one or two organizations and that was over ten years ago. Do I feel guilty when I use the labels? No. So is it really something that’s still out there?
I think it is, but it’s probably different for everybody. Some people feel obligated to reciprocate when others do unexpected nice things for them, and other’s just simply appreciate the gesture and are thankful. And then of course there are those that give so they get or at least expect to get back as much as they give; in a manner of speaking they are banking on the Rule. That last group annoys me, but it’s all part of it, I guess.
Anyone have any good Rule stories?
*much of the wording in the first three paragraphs is taken from the news article itself


Blogger Kimmy said...

I kinda feel obligated to reciprocate when others do things...biggest examples being Christmas gifts, cards etc. It's kind of stressful and I wish I didn't feel obligation, because I much prefer to give from my heart. I wish I wasn't such a rule-follower.

I don't often give to the address label organizations, but I do feel incredibly guilty when I don't.

And, even though I follow the rules, I don't want other people to. I'd rather them do things because they want to. I wouldn't want anyone to feel obligated to do something nice for me.

So, why do I do it? Ugh.

7:48 PM  

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