Maintaining reciprocity in Asian Culture

Jul 1, 2020 | Publications

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The concept of reciprocity is characteristic of any functioning society – it has existed in pre-modern communities which relied on bartering, as it does today.

While market transactions address the utilitarian purposes of moving goods and services, reciprocity is social at its crux. It is non-market exchange for the purpose of initiating, maintaining and renewing social relationships. In many Chinese cultures, the concept of reciprocity 人情 (ren qing) literally translates to human relations.

Gift exchange as part of reciprocity

In the 1925 seminal text by anthropologist Marcel Mauss, which describes systems of exchange and obligation in Polynesia and the American Northwest, he uncovered that gifts were not merely material, but also spiritual. Among Samoans, each item contained a part of the gifter’s spiritual essence – therefore reciprocation was necessary, to avoid ‘active’ gifts from finding their way back to the original owner. Whereas in the American Northwest, potlatch was a system of exchanged gifts, involving power play and competition. A chief could only maintain his position as much as he circulated his fortune with his community – “the obligation to give is the essence of potlatch” .

How the Samoans perceived gift exchange holds true for urban communities today. A gift can be tangible, for example, money, goods or intangible, for example, information, status or affection. When a gift is given in gratitude in Chinese cultures, the phrase “这是我的一片心意” translates to “this is a piece of my heart”. While material in manifestation, the underlying emotion of any gift is spiritual or emotional, rooted by an attitude of thoughtfulness – 心意 (xin yi). As such, the benchmark for evaluating the value of any gift is not in its market value, but subjectively defined by the recipient based on its significance and appeal.

As such, the act of reciprocity through gifting exchange is an intricate art. It considers the social distance between gifter and recipient, suitability of gifting occasion as well as fit with the recipient’s preferences and current life context. A gift lacking in thoughtfulness could negatively impact a relationship.

Reciprocity in the time of Covid-19: peer-to-peer gifting

Lock-downs across cities have meant that social distancing has disrupted usual interactions amongst families and friends. While all social interactions have moved onto digital platforms, this adaptation is not without its struggles. Digital fatigue isn’t just physical, it’s also psychological. A BBC report notes that pre-Covid, social roles were dependent on locales such as bars, home, the workplace. These have all collapsed onto a computer window now, placing more stress on the individual as a result. A computer window is also insufficient in expressing reciprocity, especially without a human touch.

However, with the picking up of delivery/logistic services and e-commerce sales, many have turned to gifting physical goods to compensate for the lack. Across the board, three kinds of gifting occasions are particularly notable.

Firstly, important milestones such as birthdays and anniversaries. Associated gifting items such as cakes and flowers are now just a part of an expanded repertoire. With meals regularly delivered via food apps today, gifters have taken it upon themselves to order complete meals delivered right to the recipient’s doorstep. The symbolism is distinctly social and Asian – in Singapore for example, the opening greeting to acquaintances isn’t “hello”, but rather “have you eaten?” Since communal meals cannot be partaken, the next best alternative is in feeding the recipient.

Secondly, everyday gifting to show support and encouragement. While online conversations convey emotional support and affirmation, it is the physical gift which completes the gifter’s sentiment. From confectionaries to cold brews and bubble tea, these small gifts are matched to the recipient’s preferences and needs. The lower cost of such items is inversely proportionate to the value it brings to the recipient’s current context; in expressing empathy and camaraderie.

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L to R: Showcasing gifts received by recipients on personal social media feeds as part of maintaining cycle of reciprocity

The third, activity-based gifting so as to simulate the ‘doing’ together. Some examples include gifting gym items such as weight lifting or yoga equipment and doing a workout together online on Zoom. Others gift baking or cooking utensils and ingredients to prepare the same dish together virtually. This expands the scope of social interaction beyond a conversation, and fulfils both the gifter and recipients’ functional and emotional needs, while deepening the relationship.

How brands have latched on to peer-to-peer gifting

To this, logistic and delivery services such as Grab have been proactive in adapting to increased demand for peer-to-peer gifting. For example, Grab Singapore has focused on improving its GrabExpress programme, which provides on-demand parcel and food delivery by increasing the volume of its driver-partners.

However, they have also gone beyond improving functional processes. Tapping on to the need for reciprocity and gift exchange, they have positioned their messaging to one that also mimics a gift. A GrabExpress pack is no longer just utilitarian in nature, but also a ‘thoughtfully put together surprise package” from Grab to the gifter. Included in their EDMs are also suggestions for gifting which coincide with both every day and occasion-based gifting needs. To emphasise Grab’s integral role in aiding reciprocity, the brand also features stories of heart-warming gift deliveries on their Instagram. L to R: GrabExpress packs for purchase, and social media posts pointing out gifts or exceptional Grab drivers on Grab’s IG feed

Local F&B brands in Singapore have also tapped onto this insight in curating gift collections for the gifter, and/or allowing the personalisation of gifts. Spirit merchants and bars alike such as The Secret Mermaid pair their products with other gifting lines like confectionaries to offer “a bundle of love and surprise to someone special”. Likewise, Elite Bar Solutions also provides customisation of gifting packs through handwritten message cards. L to R: Offerings from The Secret Mermaid, Temple Cellars and Elite Bar Solutions

In both kinds of businesses mentioned, the delivery personnel is also no longer just playing a functional role. They becomes the proxy for the gifter at the door of the recipient. Be it announcing the name of the gifter or message attached to the parcel, the gifting exchange is enhanced by this small ‘human touch’.

Way Forward: The future of reciprocity

As businesses slowly reopen with hopeful containment of the pandemic, there is also the anticipation of regaining lost time in social relationships – between friends, families and lovers alike. While the spatial context of reciprocity in the future still remains uncertain, the principles of it remain consistent. The act of giving will continue to be a crucial manifestation and expression of reciprocity in maintaining social relationships.

As such, brands must likewise consider opportunities in integrating their products and/or services within the gifting exchange. Be it as a conduit in the act of giving, or in providing offerings – they must showcase both a mindset of thoughtfulness and emotional value to both gifter and recipient.

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