The Language of Reciprocity and Exchange

If someone says, "Thank you," and another one responds, "You're welcome," does the response deny, cancel, or balance out a reciprocity or an exchange? Does it mean the one who thanks is welcome again to avail, receive, or ask for favor? Does the one who responds mean what he says or is he culturally conditioned linguistically to say "You're welcome" if he hears someone say "Thank you"? Is the "thank you-and-you're welcome" dialogue, in itself, a reciprocity of acts and an exchange of expressions?

Among Filipinos, when someone says "Salamat" (Thanks), the expected response is "Walang anuman" (No anything). Even though the response sounds negative, it negates nothing. "Utang na loob" (debt of gratitude) stays untouched. It cannot be cancelled or denied by expressions Malinowski (1923) and Jacobson (1960) called pathic. "Pathic expression" in contemporary parlance is "small talk." Only exchange (palitan) can cancel, deny, and balance out reciprocity (gantihan). "Sumbat" (reminding or counting), an insulting act where a benefactor reminds and counts what he has given to a beneficiary, calls for a payment or payback value-for-value. If the beneficiary cannot pay or do the equivalent exchange, he can return what he has received. So, exchanging and returning gifts cancel reciprocity.

Reciprocity in the Philippines has no specific language or expression, since it is an informal, unsaid, and unspecified form of interaction where giving and receiving are involved. If one gives or does someone a gift or a favor, it is expected and understood that the latter should reciprocate to the former whatever and however he wants in the future. Exchange is a different story. "Deal," "quits," "barter," "trade," and "exchange" have entered our lingua franca for exchange, especially in business and gambling. They are used when a value-for-value deal is reached. "Exchange tayo ng number" means "Let's give each other's phone number." "Barter tayo ng sapatos." is "Let's trade your shoes with mine." "Quits na tayo." translates to "We're now okay." or "There's no more between us."

Among male participants, they use "usapang lalake" (gentleman's talk) together with a handshake to mean that they have to stick to what they agree. Exchange also includes blatant negating statements such as "Bayad na ako." (I'm paid off.), "Patas na tayo." (We're now equal or balanced.), and "Wala na akong utang." (I have no more debt.) said after the conclusion of a deal or finalization of an agreement . Such statements are also used when a reciprocity is ended by an exchange. For example, if a friend makes "sumbat" by telling me that he gave me a shirt before, I'll feel insulted and be compelled to buy him a shirt similar to what he gave or return what he gave me if I still haven't used it. I'll then use a negating expression or statement for exchange since our reciprocal relationship is over. Naturally, I will say it with a hint of anger and disappointment.

"Walang anuman," the Tagalog equivalent of "welcome," doesn't have an exact communicated meaning or transferred information. It's said automatically the moment "salamat" (Thank you) is heard. Filipinos are culturally conditioned to say it as a response. "Walang anuman" doesn't mean anything specifically. Some don't even understand what it really means, but they use it. Its literal meaning, "No anything," is vague. Its function is to give voice to an act of recognizing a grateful person who thanks. It completes the social interaction. It's the saying that counts not what's being said. Besides, if one doesn't want to verbally respond, he can resort to gestures by nodding or moving his hands.

Americans, for a small talk that's also a greeting, say, "How's it going?" The natural response is: "Good." Again, they're culturally conditioned to say the usual response although the interrogative greeting is unclear. What is "it"? Is it a person that is good or one of the things he is doing that is going good? "What's up?" and What's new?" are usually answered automatically with "Not much" or "Nothing much." "What's up?" for example, is culture-specific. If translated to Tagalog, it's "Anong nangyari?" a question only nosy people itching for gossips ask. It seems to me vague grateful or greeting expressions are exchanged with vague responses, and an act of thanking or greeting is reciprocated with an act of acknowledging or responding back. Generally, expressions are for exchange and acts are for reciprocity, where a responded act of greeting, for instance, can be a beginning of a long, meaningful relationship, if done right.

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Comment by John McCreery on December 10, 2010 at 6:04pm

First, a couple of points about the Japanese case.In Japan, gifts of chocolate on Valentine's day are one-way, from women to  men (reversing the pattern in, for example, the USA); the men are supposed to reciprocate on "White Day," an entirely artificial holiday created by department stores taking advantage of the principle that those who receive should later give back. 

Second, the chocolate comes in many forms. The _giri choco_ is typically cheap, industrially made and packaged chocolate candy, on a par with the sort of candy that in the USA is bought in bulk for Halloween treats. Deeper respect or more serious interest are expressed by the gift of more expensive imported or artisanal chocolate. Greater intimacy is expressed by chocolate handmade by the giver (albeit, typically, from kits that supply directions as well as the necessary ingredients.

Returning, however, to the research project I suggested. I would strongly recommend not spending a lot of time on developing a preconceived theory of the gift. One good start with a dictionary or thesaurus, many of which are now available on line. Starting to play with this I note that in my iPhone I have both Chinese and Japanese dictionary apps and entering the English word "gift" in the search field produces a substantial and varied list of terms and phrases on both. In a more serious vein, I can, if I want to spend the time, check those lists against Japanese-Japanese and Chinese-Chinese dictionaries, of which classic equivalents of the OED are now available on line as well as on paper. It seems reasonable to assume that, while quick searches of the sort that are now relatively simple to implement, might not reveal some subtle differences, the broad local categories conventionally glossed "gift" in English should pop up  pretty quickly, making possible comparisons between languages. 

Comment by John McCreery on December 10, 2010 at 1:26pm
Curious thing, in a taxi tonight I heard a Japanese pop singer cover of

"Last Christmas, I gave you my heart.
The very next day, you gave it away.
This tears
I'm giving it to someone special."

I was also moved to meditate on the difference between the Imperial gift, the _On_ so infinitely vast that only death could repay it and _giri choco_, "duty chocolate," given as Valentine's Day gifts by Japanese office ladies to male colleagues of whom they are not particularly fond.

In a more serious vein, I am wondering if we should try to get beyond this kind of random reminiscence to a bit of systematic research on the terminology of gifts and gift-giving in Tagalog, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Greek and English for starters. Would be interesting to know if there are serious categorical differences or, as has turned out in the case of color terms, a global paradigm with identical prototypes and minor variation around the edges.
Comment by M Izabel on December 9, 2010 at 7:24pm

This is interesting. Filipinos have bisita/buwesita, a play of words. Bisita is visitor and buwesita, annoyance.
Comment by Huon Wardle on December 9, 2010 at 6:22pm
I had never thought of it until now I looked at the online dictionary - guest/ghost.
Comment by Keith Hart on December 9, 2010 at 5:18pm
The online etymological dictionary is quite good. The Greek for stranger xenos is similar.
Comment by Huon Wardle on December 9, 2010 at 3:26pm
A great deal of modernist art plays with the idea of

'art' as something so valuable it is inalienable - Duchamp's urinal or Manzoni's canned excrement for example
Comment by Huon Wardle on December 9, 2010 at 2:40pm
Comment by John McCreery on December 9, 2010 at 1:13pm
P.S. Until, of course, the revolution.
Comment by John McCreery on December 9, 2010 at 1:08pm
Thompson's Rubbish Theory is useful in exploring the idea that objects go through cycles of value from utility to 'rubbish' or to 'antique'. 'Rubbish', 'priceless antique' or 'museum' object are hard but not impossible to alienate. Put another way, 'inalienable' is perhaps just 'harder to sell without someone complaining'.

Which brings us round to Hocart's observation that the sacred and the profane, the divine king and the outcast, are the immovable poles that divine the boundaries of everyday society.
Comment by Huon Wardle on December 9, 2010 at 11:52am
Rightly or wrongly (I am no area expert), Godelier extends this argument to the Kula, asserting that the goods in circulation are, in effect, only on loan; only the original owner has the right to remove them from circulation by trading them for non-Kula goods.

There are two things at issue there. One is the idea that ancestral objects are inalienable, the other is that they can only be circulated/traded/gifted within a particular sphere of exchange: that is, transacted for specific kinds of object.

Thompson's Rubbish Theory is useful in exploring the idea that objects go through cycles of value from utility to 'rubbish' or to 'antique'. 'Rubbish', 'priceless antique' or 'museum' object are hard but not impossible to alienate. Put another way, 'inalienable' is perhaps just 'harder to sell without someone complaining'.


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