You Haven’t Given Me A Gift, You’ve Given Me An Obligation

Across much of the world, it’s the holiday season and for many people the biggest holiday of them all is Christmas. Some celebrate Christmas as the season of joy and peace. For others, it’s the season of love. For most it’s the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

A huge part of the modern celebration of Christmas is Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and holiday music. In some stores Christmas music started around Halloween! Of course, the holiday season represents the bulk of sales for many retail stores, sometimes accounting for as much as 70% of their gross revenue!  A successful holiday season is a matter of economic survival for many businesses.

Gift Giving

All of this leads to another Christmas tradition – gift giving. The television show The Big Bang Theory had an excellent holiday episode on the exchange of gifts. Sheldon feels pressure because Penny got him a Christmas present and here is some of their interaction:

  • Sheldon: You bought me a present?
  • Penny: Yes.
  • Sheldon: Why would you do such a thing?
  • Penny: I don’t know, because it’s Christmas.
  • Sheldon: No Penny, I know you’re thinking you’re being generous but the foundation of gift giving is reciprocity. You haven’t given me a gift, you’ve given me an obligation.
  • Penny: Honey, it’s okay, you don’t have to give me anything in return.
  • Sheldon: Of course I do. The essence of the custom is that I now have to go out and purchase for you a gift of commensurate value and representing the same perceived level of friendship as the gift you’ve given me. Gosh, no wonder suicide rates skyrocket this time of year.

The skit nails the rule of reciprocity. A powerful principle of influence, reciprocity alerts us to this reality – we feel obligated to give back to those who’ve given to us. We are taught this rule in early childhood. Someone did something kind for you and mom or dad said, “What do you say?” You responded, “Thank you.” And the conditioning began! Sheldon wasn’t responding to Penny out of the goodness of his heart but rather a lifetime of conditioning when he felt the need to match Penny’s gift.

We also see reciprocity at work powerfully in another of the Christmas traditions – exchanging holiday cards. Have you ever received a card in the mail from someone not on your list? How did you feel? If you’re like most people you probably responded in one of two ways:

  1. Got a card in the mail to the other person pronto, or
  2. Added the person to your mailing list for next year.

Why Do You Respond?

Why do you respond this way so often? Because it would be socially awkward next time you saw the other person if you didn’t reciprocate and they noticed.

In fact, we’re so conditioned by reciprocity that we often respond when we don’t really want to. Here are some examples:

  • You’re at the mall and someone from a kiosk shoves something in your face and begins asking you questions. You respond, “No thanks,” even though you’re not thankful they accosted you.
  • You get mailing labels in the mailbox and you respond to these “gifts” by sending the charitable organization a small donation.
  • You’re out with friends, have had enough to drink and are ready to go home, but you stick around to buy a round because you don’t want to be seen as having drinks but not paying for a round.

Some Uplifting News

But there’s good news in all this. Sheldon wasn’t 100% accurate. He said suicide rates skyrocket during the holidays but that’s not true. According the NYU Lagone Medical Center, “The media often links suicides during this time of year to the ‘holiday blues.’ However, various studies have shown no relationship between depression and suicide, and the holiday season. In fact, researchers found that depression rates and suicides actually drop during the winter months and peak in the spring.”


While it may be the season to reciprocate, don’t buy gifts and send cards this time of year under penalty of death. But beware, you might feel awkward around some people for a time if you break the rule of reciprocity.

Brian Ahearn

Brian Ahearn is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE. An author, TEDx speaker, international trainer, coach, and consultant, Brian helps clients apply influence in everyday situations to boost results.

As one of only a dozen Cialdini Method Certified Trainers (CMCT) in the world, Brian was personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the science of ethical influence.

Brian’s first book, Influence PEOPLE, was named one of the 100 Best Influence Books of All Time by Book Authority. His follow-up, Persuasive Selling for Relationship Driven Insurance Agents, was an Amazon new release bestseller. His latest book, The Influencer: Secrets to Success and Happiness, is a business parable designed to teach you how to apply influence concepts at home and the office.

Brian’s LinkedIn courses on persuasive selling and coaching have been viewed by more than 500,000 people around the world!

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.