At first I was going to title this post “Buying Companionship Fails: No, Seriously. Stop it.” But then who would bother reading the post? Doesn’t everybody know this by now?
Well, on the surface, yes, most people have at least memorized some arrangement of words that have this general meaning. Still many people seem to either miss the point completely or attempt some impressive mental gymnastics to convince themselves and others that the kind of awkward gift giving they’re doing doesn’t count.
You see, the obvious example of buying friendship most people think of, was usually last seen in middle school or high school. Usually we’re talking about the awkward kid who tries to get in with a group of cooler kids by offering them stuff; sometimes going as far as to sacrifice lunch money or steal from their parents. The cool kids almost never really befriend their prospect but are more than happy to accept free stuff and laugh about it later.
Here’s the problem with using this as the archetypal friendship-buying scenario. Finding where you belong growing up is hard and looking at this scenario brings us back to those moments when we were made to feel crappy and uncool. As a result, most of us really feel for this kid. We think “Well, obviously the kid’s nice, so why don’t they just be friends with him?”. The answer is that they don’t want to but the gifts keep coming anyway. Unfortunately, especially for those who are more prone to friendship buying behavior, this sympathizing with the underdog changes this from a story about a lousy way to make friends into a story about a bunch of kids being dicks.
This is how you end up with people trying to buy friendship into their 20’s and beyond. They rationalize that if they aren’t draining their meager adolescent budgets to please a playground full of obvious douchebags who will never, ever like them, then they aren’t really trying to buy friendship. That scenario was clearly 100% hopeless (to everyone but the kid. We tend to forget that part.). What about situations where there IS hope?
Well, let’s replace the gaggle of standoffish jerks with…say, that acquaintance you’ve been wanting to get to know better or that friend you haven’t talked to in a while. Chances are pretty good they don’t completely hate your guts and it’s probably safe to try to get closer. Besides, we’re all adults and by now we should have put all those high-school exclusionary attitudes behind us. A gift out of the blue shouldn’t hurt then, right?
Well first of all, now that we can no longer make the a priori assumption that we’re dealing with a selfish asshole, we’re more able to empathize with the person on the other side of this interaction. The first problem from this perspective is that…
This is awkward.
Receiving a gift out of nowhere from someone you’re not especially close to feels weird. If the receiver can’t make sense of your motives if you decide to give them things, it can even be creepy. Often, it’s only slightly less creepy than receiving such a gift from a total stranger. There’s also an implication of wanting something in return; that this gift is expected by the giver to be matched somehow even though the receiver may not be ready or willing to do so. What’s worse, is that now that someone has awkwardly offered this gift, the receiver is now without volunteering to be there, suddenly in the same role as all those dicks in high school. Unless you really are one of those dicks from high school and look forward to taking advantage of some sad awkward person, this isn’t likely to make you feel good at all. It may seem like any option available to you leads to either personal discomfort or looking like a terrible person. You could awkwardly accept the gift while leaving your level of connection as it is and feel like a dick for taking advantage. You could also turn down the gift and feel like a dick for refusing a nice gesture from a nice, sad, awkward person. Or you could accept the gift and carry out a fake level of friendship and not feel like a dick per se but still feel incredibly uncomfortable.
Not only that, but even if you turn down the gift gracefully and aren’t entirely opposed to perhaps hanging out more, you still have to deal with the awkward and telling fact that this person just tried to buy you. You can’t be entirely sure why or for what. Maybe they wanted more hangout time. Maybe they’re trying to get sex. Or maybe they aren’t trying to get anything at all and are just awkwardly generous. You don’t know for sure but it kinda seems in poor taste to ask outright “Hey, you aren’t just giving me this in the hopes that I’ll bone you, right?”.
Suspicions here are not unfounded. It’s well known that Nice Guy types will give various things they weren’t asked for until they think they’re owed and then become angry and resentful when they aren’t paid back with exactly what they want.
“But what if i’m giving something to a friend? It’s not buying friendship if you’re already friends, right?”
That depends on what kind of friendship you have. If this is something you both routinely do for each other, there’s likely no harm. The expectations and levels of give and take are already set and equalized here. Then there are occasions like birthdays and holidays where gifts are expected. Sometimes if you’ve screwed up, a small gift can be a nice apology gesture to show you care. But if you’re just vaguely feeling like a sub-par friend and fear they’ll abandon you if you don’t do something quick, a gift is not the way to go.
If you have a history of social failure or social anxiety, it can be really easy to feel like you’re a burden to your friends. It can feel as if everybody else but you can contribute to their friendships just by being themselves while you’re left having to compensate for things you feel you’re lacking. Maybe you don’t always have jokes or funny stories. Maybe you always seem to be the one needing emotional support while everybody else is just fine. Maybe you just feel less worthy in general. When you don’t feel like you have anything good to offer on a personal level, it can be tempting to compensate for this materially.
This is terrible for quelling fears of abandonment. For one, if this is a friendship where it’s assumed you care about each other, a random out of nowhere gift can bring your anxiety to their attention in a very unhelpful way. To a good friend, this can make it seem like you don’t really believe they care about you and that you believe they have to be bought in order to keep you around. This can make them feel insulted, upset and uncomfortable which is probably not the effect you had in mind. On the flipside, if they don’t really enjoy hanging out with you, it can feel as if you’re trying to trap them or make them look like jerks for leaving. What’s worse is that gift giving doesn’t make people care about you. It gives people an incentive to stick around even though they don’t care about you. In either case, if they accept the gift, you’re still left with the uncertainty of whether they stayed for you or for the free stuff and you don’t feel better after all.
You see, whether you’re trying to enkindle a new friendship, bring life back to an old one, or patch up one you fear might be failing, the best approach is to just be friendly. Invite new friends to do things and go places with you. Ask how old friends are doing and if they want to hang out again. Share your fears and concerns with established friends and talk about how to make things better. And if you feel like you want a certain friend to be more-than-a-friend, ask.
Ah, but there’s the fear. You may prefer uncertainty to the possibility of asking for these things and getting a definitive answer that you don’t like. It can feel better to just leave their real feelings in limbo and hope you can influence them with unrequested gifts. That way, if they do end up rejecting you in the end, at least you can call them a dick for taking off with your stuff.
“But what if I just like giving stuff to people?”
Well, you’d better be telling the truth. You don’t have to have an agenda for this to be a statement of self-deception either. “Giving makes me happy” is not the same as “giving makes me feel like something that isn’t shit”. Saying “I like to make people happy” isn’t the same as “I crave reassurance that people are happy with me.” Whatever the reasoning, if you give and give and give without considering whether your receiver is actually comfortable with it, then who is that gift really for?