08 Jul 2018 19:34 IST

Minding the Ps and Qs

Some thoughts on granting favours and receiving thanks

I have a friend who says that if she can do someone a favour, she will. Why say no when there’s no compelling reason to refuse, is her argument. Unless, of course, there’s something criminal or illegal involved. Of course, she’s talking about the smaller things. Not things like big bank bosses doing their kith and kin monetary and other favours. Still, she got me thinking.

Let’s say someone comes to you asking for a recommendation letter. Your course of action is clear if you don’t know the person at all. What if you know the person somewhat, and the person is desperate for admission or a job. What do you do? What if you know the person well, and, similarly, the person is desperate, and you also know the person is not the right fit. What do you do? Tricky, right? Whom do you feel constrained to owe allegiance to? The person you know who is desperate or the entity you do not, which is the organisation? Of course, matters get complicated when the point of contact in the institution or organisation is a person you know.

The reality is we all need each other, and sometime or the other we’re all going to be seeking or doing favours, both in our professional and personal lives. That’s the way the world works, that’s how people connect — and disconnect. Which is why how we deal with them becomes significant. Experts and commonsensical types will say be upfront, ask directly, provide some context at least, sometimes be ready to do something in return, provided it’s appropriate to suggest willingness, make it easy for the other party to decline.

Nature vs nurture

There are other aspects as well to doing and accepting favours. One of them is to do with human nature. We are wired with a dizzying range of intrinsic patterns of behaviour that govern all our actions, including when we want something, from being resentful and defensive to overly fawning, depending upon the kind of personality an individual’s been bestowed with. Ignorantly, I assumed that behaviour was all cooked up by DNA until something prompted me to check this out — that unraveled a whole lot of discussion about behavioural genetics that’s much too particular to summon here.

An article in National Geographic, for instance, by Virginia Hughes, headlined ‘My DNA made me do it? How Behavioural Genetics is influencing the justice system’, warns about the problems of assuming that criminal behaviour is to do with DNA. She quotes an editorial in Nature magazine which says, “There is no one-to-one relationship between genetics and mental health or between mental health and violence. Something as simple as a DNA sequence cannot explain anything as complex as behaviour.”

Coming back to favours, then; once the job’s done, behaviour kicks in that’s wide-ranging and tangential, from the abjectly indebted to broad views of backs or no views at all. The question this spawns is: How long must one remain grateful to the benefactor? How grateful should the beneficiary be, and how must the gratitude be expressed, if it must at all?

It’s awkward. For instance, it’s common among families, at least in this part of the world, to ‘help’ other families. That’s just a coward’s way of referring to a culture that has long nurtured feudalism. The charitable view is that the skewed master-servant dynamic — which is one extreme end of the spectrum — is slowly finding its own balance as generations pass on. But how long must the chain of gratitude run? After all, the ‘servant’s’ grandchildren are not obliged to be grateful. If they are respectful and/or affectionate, it’s a bonus.

Not a debt

At another point of the spectrum are family members who’ve been given a leg up in all humility and compassion. Nothing compels their progeny to express gratitude to the benefactors of their ancestors. And for how long must the immediate beneficiaries themselves acknowledge the favour? Thanks to life and life’s opportunities is one thing. Thanks to individuals for a set of circumstances is another altogether. Making the most of those opportunities must count as appreciation in itself. In business we talk about ROI, return on investment. In life, it would seem that the investment itself is the return. A someone said, tongue in cheek, “I owe you a million thanks though the exact number depends on today’s gratitude exchange rate.”

It may seem as though I’m arguing against gratitude. Far from it. Gratitude in itself, feeling grateful, giving thanks — this kind of thinking or state of being is conducive to creating a positive mindset and an enabling character. This is desirable. What is not, is expecting a bondage of gratitude for eternity, or engendering grateful servitude.

A spirit of thankfulness is uplifting, for individuals and for society. Expressing thanks is not always easy or free from falsity. Abusing this spirit to hold people down — that’s the quarrel. There’s also a difference between saying thank you and being thankful. You see it in children, before they’re tutored in the mores of the formal world. You see it in pet animals. You see it in the way leaves look up at the sky after a shower of rain.

I chanced upon a poem called Worms by a poet called Carl Dennis, and what he says couldn’t have been said better (quoting partially from the poem)

“Aren’t you glad at least that the earthworms

Under the grass are ignorant, as they eat the earth,

Of the good they confer on us…?

“Imagine if they suspected how much we owe them,

How the weight of our debt would crush us

Even if they enjoyed keeping the grass alive,

The garden flowers and vegetables, the clover,

And wanted nothing that we could give them,

Not even the merest nod of acknowledgement.”

In other words, be grateful not forever but forever… or what?