Take the Pen – what’s it called when you don’t want them to accept?

From "The Pen" episode of Seinfeld.

From “The Pen” episode of Seinfeld.

“Indian giving” is when you give someone something and then you take it back. But what’s it called when you offer someone something but hope they refuse?

People fascinate me. I fascinate me. I’ve done this too. You want to look generous but you don’t really want to give up the thing you are offering. You want the best of both worlds: to look generous, but also keep your stuff.

So, yes, I made this picture to kick off a little investigation of this behavior and hopefully give it a name.

 In “The Pen” episode of Seinfeld, Jerry’s dad’s friend, Jack, offers Jerry a pen. Jack loves the pen and only offers it because Jerry is talking about how much he needs a pen like that. He offers Jerry the pen, but really he hopes that Jerry will turn him down. Sometimes you give because you want someone to be happy. Sometimes you give because you want to be happy. Or maybe, these two are the same thing.

Giving is a very loaded activity. It’s a shift of power. The thing you have is a resource and giving it to someone means you have lost that resource and they have gained it. Evolution made the human psyche such that the recipient should feel a certain amount of obligation. Not only that, despite that you have lost something, you have also taken the position of power. Giving in certain circumstances is, in a sense, a declaration of self-value. “I’m so good and wealthy that I can give this to you”. You can’t give what you don’t have, so givers are by definition “havers”. This can even be seen in chimps who have some extra food and give it to others in a social chess move to either get something tangible back later, or to gain some alliance with the recipient. Of course, if you give too much and too indiscriminately, it is a sign of weakness. But under the right conditions, the act of giving is often good for you socially. And that makes both parties happy.

But Jack doesn’t look at all happy in that episode. Tis better to give than to receive, right? But what a pain giving can be sometimes. Despite the social benefits of giving, despite the fact that evolution has built us to be givers, giving is still giving, and that means I won’t have something and you will. That awesome pen, for instance. So, of course, humans have found ways to get those social benefits without actually giving up anything: the “offer it but hope they refuse” strategy. With this strategy you hope to gain the social benefits without losing the resource, ie. the thing you are giving.

If they refuse, it can be even work out for both sides since refusing a gift can also be a power play. It says “I don’t need you” when the other person is saying “you need me”. In this case, Jerry wants the pen but also wants to avoid looking like a taker. Jack wants to look like a giver but really wants to keep his pen. With each “take the pen”/”I can’t take it” iteration, they each improve their standing in the eyes of others. “Jack is really a giver, he keeps demanding that Jerry take the pen”. And “Jerry is really too good to take the pen, he keeps refusing”.

But Jerry finally accepts the pen. He knew Jack loved the pen, but he himself really wanted it. He felt good enough about himself to not care about Jack’s obvious mixed feelings.

Despite each getting something, they also both feel like crap: Jack without his beloved pen and Jerry with the guilt of taking away that pen. Such is the nature of evolution, the things you get will often only have incremental benefits. The benefit of the new pen is diminished by the guilt, and the benefit of being a giver is diminished by not having that kick-ass pen.

Like giving and taking itself, this is a universal human behavior. But there is no name for it. Who can help give it one? I’m fresh out of ideas.

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