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Four Times to Disobey the Reciprocity Rule

The Reciprocity Rule

The Reciprocity Rule is a common societal norm that supposes that when you receive something, you return something of equal value. This can be material or emotional. This generally works to everyone’s advantage. When you give me good value, I return to your business and am a happy customer. When you give me good service, I give you a good tip and recommend you to others. When you’re polite, I’m polite. As long as everyone is on the same page, this works very well. However, there are four times when reciprocity does NOT work to your advantage.

“I love you, too”

Saying “I love you” is an emotional expression that should be shared between people who feel it. However, when it is followed by “I love you, too,” to can eventually come off as sounding meaningless because it’s become a force of habit. If you want your declaration to be heartfelt and real, say it only when you mean it. I can’t tell you how many people report being in a relationship where they don’t feel love yet their partner says they say it all the time. If this is you, perhaps it is because you’ve gotten into a reciprocal rut. Try something new. Only say the words “I love you” when something happens to touch your heart and you want the other person to feel your love. Give your partner eye to eye contact so that he or she connects with your sincerity. If this is over the phone, say it in a way that your partner knows that it is genuine. If you are receiving these words, give them the attention that they deserve. If you act like it’s no big deal, your partner may start to reciprocate and act like it’s no big deal too!


When someone flings hate your way- whether with words, actions or emotions- it may seem appropriate to return it with the same vigor that it was offered to you. After all, you didn’t start it. You’re just following the rules of tit for tat. Unfortunately hate is a boomerang. You get back what you send out. The best bet for disrupting the cycle is to greet ugliness with respect. This doesn’t mean you agree with the other person or are tolerating disrespect. It just means that you choose not to sacrifice your inner tranquility.


There are two common responses to compliments. People either say something to downplay the compliment (“Oh, it’s nothing really”) or return a compliment (“You’re potato salad was really good too!”) Both options dilute the value of the gift. Wouldn’t you feel a little weird if you went to a birthday party and just as you were presenting your friend with a gift, she gave you one too? Gifts are not always meant to be an equal exchange. Sometimes you are the guest of honor and it’s your turn to be appreciated. When it’s your turn, just say “Thank-you” and leave it at that. Acknowledging the gift shows that you are a good, appreciative receiver. Being a good receiver is just as important as being a good giver. When you give compliments only when they are heartfelt, rather than an automatic response to something said to you, they also become more meaningful.


Lots of salespeople, fundraisers, marketers and unethical people understand the rule of reciprocity and use it to their advantage. They may offer small things in order to get big things in return. If someone gives you something or does you a favor and then asks something of you that you feel obligated to do, don’t let the rule of reciprocity persuade you to act against your will. People want to feel that they are fair. They don’t want to feel like they are indebted, so they give to feel things are “even” and they are good. If you’ve ever been approached by a pamphlet pushers who offer you a flyer in exchange for your time, you’ve seen this in action. Once they’ve gotten you to agree to stop and listen, they start upping the ante and the next thing you know you are being talked into something much bigger.

The bottom line is reciprocity is a good thing when it is genuine, mutually beneficial and reasonable. However, as with all things, there are exceptions to the rule. If an interaction feels superficial, meaningless, manipulative or leaves you feeling bad or “off”, it’s time to draw the line and disobey the rule.


Laura Giles is a contributing blogger for JenningsWire.