Social Reciprocity

Social Reciprocity
By Elizabeth O’Brien, LPC

Do you ever go to a party or dinner and spend the entire evening putting out a lot of friendly energy and receiving very little back?
I always know when I’ve had a good social experience at a party or gathering when I don’t come home exhausted. I feel energized, and gratified. I have a warm feeling of connection inside. But other times, I come home spent and disappointed. I feel lonely and sad, in spite of having been around dozens of people.
In analyzing this phenomenon, I began noticing what makes the difference in these social arenas. The answer is simple: social reciprocity.
The “good” experiences are happy ones in which there is a true social exchange, i.e., mutual validation. I will meet someone for the first time, or see an acquaintance or friend, and there is an easy and satisfying give-and-take in conversation. The other person not only talks in response to something I have asked, or said, but also tunes into me as well, asking me questions about myself in kind. The person listens intently, instead of looking over or around my head for someone more exciting. By the end of the conversation, we have gotten to know one another a little bit. And generally, we have found some common ground.
The unhappy experiences are what you might imagine: I end up asking question after question of the other, and he or she just drones on and on, narcissistically. I’ll realize, at the end, that the person never asked me one single question, or expressed any interest whatsoever in me as a human being. Unfortunately, this latter experience is only too common. And I admit, especially when I was younger, that I, too, have been guilty of such social gaffes.
I’m not sure if it’s because our culture has become more disconnected and self-involved, or if some people are loathe to “intrude” by asking personal questions. But having been raised in the deep South, such one-sided social behavior is considered just plain rude (ask my mother!), and smacks of selfishness, not to mention a conspicuous lack of empathy. In my opinion, such “conversations” are a waste of precious time.
When I reached a certain age, my tolerance for such empty social experiences evaporated. Now, if I sense I am speaking to a “me-me-me” person, I politely but definitively move on. And I try my best to suspend judgment in the process.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” -Dale Carnegie