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Gift Horse

"You must not thank for your meat; it is your right to get parts. In this country, nobody wishes to be dependent upon others ... With gifts you make slaves just as with whips you make dogs!"

- Inuit hunter admonishing the explorer Peter Freuchen, who had made the mistake of thanking the hunter for food (1961)

Once upon a time, several years ago, I found it necessary to work with a consultant. Like most consultants, this guy loved getting together for long "business" lunches - and why not? A business lunch is a tax write-off, and a lot of fun for the consultant. The lunch is the part of consulting work where he gets to have a nice meal, sling a lot of bull, complain about whomever he's working for this time and generally run off at the mouth. It's the time when the consultant gets to theorize concerning the contract as though he were a NASA engineer, speculate on business opportunities as though he were the CEO of Nabisco. In the two-hour lunch, he gets to trade handy gossip about others in the field and pelt everyone else at the table with a barrage of trendy expressions, like, "par for the course" and "simpatico". At the end of the lunch, there is about 15 minutes of actual work, then the matter of paying for the meal.

Now, when I first had a couple of lunches with this fellow, I was impressed with what a nice guy he was. Every time the waiter or waitress brought the cheque, he would snatch it up and whip out a gold card. I would be halfway to my purse, ready to bear the damages for my own portion of the meal, when he would announce with Biblical solemnity that the meal was on him.

I was overjoyed the first time he covered the lunch: - what a nice treat. The second time he did so, I was a bit less comfortable. It was weird, since I'm used to making my own way. The third time was just annoying. I tried arguing about it, but he paid anyway. After a while, things got surreal - he was chasing after the restaurant staff to make sure the cheque only came to him. It had occurred to me by then that he was not being generous. In fact, my husband was furious, and to this day still insists that the guy was ego-tripping, trying to look good by flashing his gold card around.

Whether the consultant intended it or not, his act of constantly getting the cheque had become insulting. What might have been a gift had turned into a means of seeming socially superior to those he was "treating". Now there might be those reading this who are thinking, "It's still free. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?" The answer is because it's a matter of pride and identity, a matter traditional Inuit culture understands very well. But first, let's talk about the social power of gift-giving.

A gift is not always a gift. Sometimes, it's a weapon, a tool of egotistical warfare that almost every culture has recognized and dealt with at some point in its history. Typically, he who holds the most power in a society also has the most resources at his disposal, - the most toys. Such an individual is also the one who can afford to give most generously. And if he executes the giving well, he can get back a lot more than he gave, - in the form of lionization. By giving out gifts that the recipients could never themselves afford, he displays his wealth in return for admiration. In other words, he buys pride.

But this style of gift-giving is a dangerous game, because every society has the concept of reciprocity. It is expected that one gives in order to receive, just as one works in order to prosper. With every gift comes the unspoken promise of eventual return. Only among children is it normal to take from adults without giving in return (and even that is debatable, since children give adults the pleasure of their company - which is why adults indulge them).

So if an adult is given a gift that he cannot possibly afford to return in kind, what sort of statement is then made by the giving?

(Continued in part two: Inuit, Haida, !Kung Bushmen - and the threat of a gift.)