The Holiday season is gearing up, and the Season of Giving is upon us.  After spending a week that involved both putting on the Web2Open and getting tons of support from friends for that event and on my first half marathon, it started me thinking a lot about giving and receiving in general, as well as in specific.

I asked a question on both Facebook and Twitter – whether you preferred to give or to receive, and of those who responded, 100% said they preferred to give than receive.  I know I tend to feel this way as well, so I started to delve into why that might be the case.  Is this specific to my community of friends?  Is this social media at its heart? Is it seasonal?  Or is it people in general?

There’s a whole field of psychology, started in part by Eric Berne, called Transactional Analysis. (Eric Berne wrote a great book called “Games People Play” which I read back in high school, but remains one of those books that has helped me understand the classic emotional traps we often find ourselves in, and often how to get out of them as well.)  If you look at every interaction with someone else as a transaction, just as we might look at a monetary or economic exchange, you can start to trace what happens, what’s said, how it’s interpreted, and hopefully, in deconstructing cases of things going horribly wrong, figure out how to avoid these sorts of things in the future.  Likewise, you can figure out why things go well, so you can repeat these behaviors, making them somewhat more reproducible and leading to more consistent results, in theory, at least.

On some level, you can look at giving as a way of investing your time and resources into a relationship.  It builds up the strength of the relationship, and puts chips in the friendship bank, that can, in theory, be withdrawn at a later date if necessary.  You hear people all the time say things like  “He owes me one” and that’s just one phrase that indicates banking a favor now with an anticipated return later on.

But social relationships aren’t as exact as balance sheets.  Very few people “keep score” and those that do, we tend to dislike, because they seem petty and self-serving.  The favors and exchanges we have with them tend to feel like they come with strings attached, and it makes the receiving awkward.

Altruism, on the other hand,  seems to be the selfless act of giving, but by giving, we get a lot in exchange- a feeling of being a great person, satisfaction in helping others, in being useful and valuable.   Does this mean giving has its own rewards?  And what about the obligation it may or may not create on the receiver?  Are some kinds of giving awkward and create more of a burden than a help?

In less abstract terms, think of giving someone a fruitcake during the holidays.  Some small portion of the population may love fruitcake, and I am not one of them, nor do I know anyone who has ever expressed to me an inordinate love of the stuff.  If you give someone a fruitcake, because it’s tradition, what kind of obligation does it cause on their part?  How do they think of you and a gift they may not want?  Is it something nice, or does this feel like it was obligatory on the part of both the giver and receiver?  What if it comes wrapped in a great tin- do you keep the tin, or throw the whole magilla out?  Do you re-gift and pass along the gift, making the same faux pas multiply itself to your neighbor or mail person?  Do you wait a year and give the same fruitcake back to the original giver and hope you are sending an appropriate message along with the gesture?

The obligations and burdens that come from receiving make it inherently more awkward than giving.  Giving comes from a great place in your heart, while receiving can feel debt-inducing or obligating, sometimes even without your consent.

Yet, what I think is really going on here is the heart of community building.

Asking for help is hard.  Offering to help is easier.  Taking someone up on their offer can mean incurring an obligation, but more often, it’s an acknowledgment of the relationship.   Chris Brogan opened his Web 2.0 Expo keynote with Sawubona- the Zulu word for “I see you”- which is a much deeper acknowledgment of someone than “Hi There”- but that’s what people are looking for, I think, when they offer to help.  They want to be a part of what you are doing, and want to be a part of your community in some way.

So over Thanksgiving and this whole holiday season, when someone asks to help wash the dishes or do something, the goal should be to give them something to do.  It can be something little and simple like letting your niece fold napkins and help set the table.  It can be talking to you while you’re in the kitchen.  It can be making tea- anything that helps them feel a part of your life, a part of your community, and a part of what’s going on.  By not letting others help us, we are excluding them on some level from our lives.

For Podcamp, I try to give everyone who offers a chance to help and participate- that’s what draws a community together.  Not every job is big and glamorous, but every bit of participation helps create a bond, a sense of pride and belonging and that’s really important.

Giving others something to do and help also means giving up a piece of control.  This is not easy, and is often the biggest barrier to getting the help we need.  Other people might make a mistake.  They may not do it our way.  We may not know every thing that is going on all the time, and we may have to check up on them.  These burdens with “outsourcing” tasks can seem a bigger pain than just doing it yourself, and I think this is what gets in our way of accepting the help we’re offered.

I think we worry that if we accept help, we not only lose control, but we lose part of the sense of accomplishment at the other end.  Like two year olds yelling “Me Do It”, we want all the glory in our own name.  (Heck, I give my trainer a dirty look when she tries to help me through the end of a tough set, with that  “Me Do It” attitude screaming in my head.  But even in something as self-oriented as athletic training, Cathy is helping me reach my goals- I may be doing the phsycial lifting, but she is helping me by sharing her knowledge, knowing when I need to be pushed, and how I need to progress towards the goals we set.)  And sometimes, the stubborn “me do it” is more harmful for me than taking her advice, but just like a child, I have to learn these things as I go along.

The balance between the affection and ease of giving and how great it makes us feel needs to be balanced with becoming at ease with accepting help, asking for help when we need it, and being okay with the fact that this requires both relinquishing some control and with the strengthening of the community, relationships and connections it creates in turn.

There’s a lot more to giving and receiving than we see on the surface.  And one of my goals for this next year is to remember that asking for help and giving people who offer help an opportunity to participate and belong is to accept their friendship and community.  They are saying Sawubona- I see you, and I would like to be a part of what you are doing- it excites me.  And I need to be able to say Sawubona right back, and accept their help as an attempt to know me better, and be part of my community.

Thank you, everyone, for all of your help and encouragement lately.  It’s given me strength when I felt mine was flagging, and made me feel a part of your community.  And I hope you feel a part of mine in return, because these connections we forge with each other are where our true power lies.