A Proposed Calculus of Commitment (OR: Gift Economies Teach Us Which Events to Attend)

I recently planned a dinner party at my house to which a small group of people confirmed they could come and then canceled at the last minute. Other than being disappointed–I certainly had better things to do with my afternoon than cook food for 6 invisible people–this made me think about the calculus of commitment.

You Only Fail When You Stop Trying (Smithfield United Church of Christ Sign)

In college, as in professional life, involved people are usually over-involved. Every club, organization, or person wants more time from me than I can give. To avoid feeling or being flaky (e.g., agreeing to do more than I can), I have tried to come up with a way to be consistent about what I agree to do. While I do not always do what I say I will do, I want to be the kind of person who does.  Here’s some of the ways I decide between competing events:

    1. Have the hosts given me money? If one event is hosted by my boss/funder and another by an acquaintance, I generally go to the one with my employer/grant giver. This also works for favors–there are some friends I nearly always attend the events of because I owe them my time.
    2. How forgiving will the hosts be if I skip their event? This semester I have 10 hours of classes Tuesday/Thursday and no classes Monday, Wednesday, Friday. So when I got invited to the White House TweetUp last Tuesday, I nearly declined because I would have had to tell 6 professors I was cutting their classes. But then I realized going to the White House is the kind of thing for which professors give students slack.
    3. Am I going to enjoy myself/learn something new? Just like everyone, sometimes I have to attend boring events because they fit criteria 1 or 2. But if I don’t owe either hosts and both are forgiving, I will attend the event which will stretch me more.

I’ve been a Lawrence Lessig fan-girl for most of my adult(ish) life. His lecture on copyright was why I went to intern for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in high school and why I wrote my senior honors thesis on copyright reform. When he published a new book last fall, I bought it the day he announced it on Twitter, even though it is not on copyright but on the role of money in American politics.

In that book–Republic, Lost–he talks about how apart from a “handful of pathologically stupid souls” who trade actual money for actual laws, most governmental corruption happens through the gift economy:

“A gift economy is a series of exchanges between two or more souls who never pretend to equate one exchange to another, but who also don’t pretend that reciprocating is unimportant–an economy in the sense that it marks repeated interactions over time, but a gift economy in the sense that it doesn’t liquidate the relationships in terms of cash. Indeed, relationships, not cash, are the currency within these economies. These relationships import obligations. And the exchanges that happen within gift economies try to hide their character is exchanges by typing so much of the exchange to the relationship. I give you a birthday present. It is a good present no so much because it is expensive, but because it expressed well my understanding of you. In that gift, I expect something in return. But I would be insulted if on my birthday, you gave me a cash coucher equivalent to the value of the gift I gave you, or even two times the amount I gave you. Gift giving in relationship-based economies is a way to express and build relationships. It’s not a system to transfer wealth.”

This is the best model I’ve seen for how I think about favors and relationships, either in college or in the professional world. How I allocated my time might be a better measure of where I think I stand in a given relationship, because (like all habitual riders of Greyhound) right now I have more time than money to spend. I attend an event because I’m interested, or because I want to repay a favor, or because I want to do someone a favor. Just like with birthday presents, I don’t expect them to repay me, just to remember me favorably.

Here I sit the morning after my failed event drinking the last of the karak I made specially, sulking and remembering the folks who stood me up unfavorably, enjoying my clean house and my abundance of waffles. And in a few hours I will attend a friend’s ice cream social on campus, because he’s helped me with projects in the past, I can skip the homework I had planned for that time, and I think it will be interesting.

Inspirational Quote:

“No road is long with good company.”–Turkish Proverb

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