You’ve heard it before. “It’s a two-way street,” we always say. If I do a favor for you, if I promise to have your back when the going gets rough, if I volunteer some of my time to help you with a difficult business problem, or if I make myself available for late-night phone calls, then “it’s a two-way street.” When we make a commitment to someone else, we begin to feel a sense of entitlement. We begin to believe that the other person is indebted to us. It’s in our DNA. We live in a quid pro quo world. If I do a good turn for you, I have the right to expect that you’ll do a good turn for me—on my terms, at the time that I ask for it, in specifically the form that I request, even if it means that you have to drop everything to do it.
Have you ever gotten a phone call or an e-mail that said something along the lines of “I’ve been there for you; remember when I did XYZ for you last year? Well, right now is the time when I am really counting on you to come through for me.” If you think about it, most people do favors for other people in exchange for a blank check. It’s almost like that scene in The Godfather, where Don Corleone agrees to do a dark deed as a “gift,” but stipulates that he will expect to be repaid in the form of an undefined “service” at some point in the future. Would you do business on terms like these?
Undefined expectations destroy friendships, marriages, and business relationships alike. I have heard it stated that “an expectation is a premeditated resentment.” The problem with the “two-way street” paradigm is that it creates vague expectations. Over time, these expectations become toxic.
The way we help friends in need tends to be a bit unbalanced and unfair. The first person to do a favor is at a distinct advantage. For example, if I agree to pick you up at the airport and don’t ask for anything in return, and you’ve never done me any favors before, I am free to say “no” (or not volunteer the offer if you didn’t ask). Also, I will have the advantage of knowing what the favor is before agreeing to it or declining it. But suppose that I accept your request to pick you up at the airport, and then six months later ask you to keep my slobbery, obnoxious dog for a three-day weekend? You may feel that this is too much to ask and that it is a far greater inconvenience than picking you up at the airport was for me. But if you say no, and our friendship is a “two-way street,” then I have the right to expect that you will say “yes” unless there is a legitimate reason why you absolutely can’t do it (for example, if you are going out of town during that same weekend).
I’m not convinced that this idea of a “two-way street” is a good idea. So, I have a different proposal.
I understand that business is business, and that the bills don’t get paid by being nice to everybody and expecting nothing in return. What I’m challenging is the practice of giving favors with undefined expectations. Yet, acts of genuine friendship are an important part of what builds a well-functioning society.
I am going to suggest three possible different ways to go about solving th is problem:
There’s only one piece of the puzzle that I’m trying to figure out. Is it possible to do an unconditional favor for someone—when anonymity isn’t possible, and leave them feeling absolutely no sense of indebtedness to you? I’m not sure that this is possible at the current time, given the state of our culture and human nature. But if you have ideas on this, I’d love to hear your comments below.