The Most Expensive Gift of All – Free

Sometimes the most expensive gift of all is free. That’s right, sometimes a “free” gift cost you far more than it would have if you bought it. That’s part of the reason we’re so familiar with the saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Let me illustrate with a story.

In early February I was in Austin, Texas to conduct some sales skill workshops for State Auto associates. The workshops went great and when they concluded I celebrated with a couple of coworkers by going down to Austin’s famous Sixth Street for dinner and to take in the historic sites.
If you’ve not been to Sixth Street it’s akin to South Beach minus the incredible wealth and palm trees you see on display at South Beach. There are restaurants, bars, live music and people galore. If you enjoy people watching it’s hard to imagine a place where you could see more diversity than Sixth Street.

As my two friends and I walked around after dinner, taking in the scenery, I was approached by a panhandler who shoved an old rose toward me and asked, “A rose for the lady?” There was no indication he was selling them and I knew he wanted me to think it was a gift. Nonetheless, I declined his offer because generally I only give flowers to my wife or daughter.

He shifted his attempt to the other man in the group but his response was, “I don’t think that would be appropriate, she’s my boss.” Because it takes three strikes before you’re out he pressed the rose towards the lady who was with us. She’d not seen or heard the original offers so when she turned around she took the rose and thanked him.
Game on because next he asked for money. She politely declined but he p
ersisted for a bit as we walked away and then he left after several more refusals. A few moments later he was behind us again and this time it looked like there might be one or two others with him. We were on a busy street with lots of other people but nonetheless it was uncomfortable and immediately she gave the rose back saying, “Here, you can have it back.” They stayed near us for a short time then soon enough they were gone.
So what happened? The panhandler knew exactly what he was doing. He might not be familiar with the term “reciprocity” but he knew how the psychology behind it worked and that’s how he eked out a small living.

Reciprocity dictates that people “return the favor” so to speak. If I do something for you then you probably feel like you owe me something in return if you’re like most people. In the same way charities engage reciprocity by giving you mailing labels with the hope that you’ll give a financial gift in return, the panhandler was giving to get. The big difference between the charity and panhandler is it’s easier to say “No thanks” to an anonymous mailer than it is to a person, especially when they’re staring you in the eye. And even though it’s easier to say “no” to the mailing labels, donations typically double when charitable organization use them!

That point is worth exploring some. Most people have difficulty saying “No” when someone is literally handing them something. To avoid that feeling many people go to great lengths to avoid something as seemingly insignificant as making eye contact. Once eye contact is made whether with a beggar, a street vendor or someone at a mall kiosk, that person will descend like a vulture on a fresh carcass!
So what should you do? First, avoid eye contact with someone because that might stop the other person from approaching to begin with. If something is placed in your hand or forced upon you simply ask, “Is this a free gift?” If they say it is then you can feel free taking it without obligation. If they do anything more say, “You told me this was free. If I thought I had to pay for it I would not have bought it,” and keep going. Of course, your other option is to do what our friend did and just hand it back.
I’m willing to bet that most free offers that come our way during the day are just that; offers to help with no strings attached. Return the favor in some way down the road when the time is appropriate and you might have the start of a great working relationship. But outside the realm of friends and coworkers you might do well to heed the old saying that warns us, “Beware the man bearing gifts.”
Brian, CMCT
influencepeopleHelping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.


5 replies
  1. matt gordon
    matt gordon says:

    this story is similar to my issues with becoming a christian. i grew up with snake oil salesman pastors. fortunately, salvation is a free gift that came at a cost to someone else. as for panhandlers, this is a clever psychological ploy but it would help him more if spent time observing first prior to the hard sell

  2. Stella Collins
    Stella Collins says:

    Happy Birthday Brian!
    I liked your dissection of 'reciprocity' but it must have been a slightly disconcerting experience.
    What are your views on 'Pay it Forward' i.e. when you give someone a 'gift' instead of them paying it back to you, you ask them to pay it forward to the next person who needs a favour or a gift themselves.
    I think it's probably a bit like the concept of 'karma'

    Does this still fit with the concept of reciprocity? I think it probably does because your 'gift in return' is the knowledge that somewhere down the line someone else benefits.

  3. Brian
    Brian says:

    It is always a little disconcerting when you're in a strange city with few people you know and you find yourself in a situation like we were in.

    I think asking someone to pay it forward engages reciprocity. Most people want to "return the favor" and asking them to help someone else instead of doing you a kind deed still allows them to fulfill that social obligation.

  4. Anita Lauer
    Anita Lauer says:

    A Korean student of mine once visited New York City and was "given" a CD by a local musician and then hit up for money. He didn't understand most of what the panhandler was saying, was intimidated and ended up emptying his wallet. It's horrible how we let people prey on our tourists like this.

  5. Brian Ahearn
    Brian Ahearn says:

    That's unfortunate but sadly it occurs a lot. Part of the reason I write the blog is to help people learn about the psychology that sometimes compells them to do something they don't really want to do. If they learn here they can avoid those kinds of mistakes.


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