There is an unwritten, often unmentioned social contract that takes place when you do what you think is something selfless. We like to think that we are altruistic. That is, unselfish; showing concern for others. And by and large, I think we are. We can always do more, of course. There are some things we do that we think are nice, kind things, but we sometimes don’t understand the subtle subtext that goes along with it. The unspoken contract into which we have entered.
It may seem like a small thing. It may seem inconsequential. But to some folks, these things are huge. Immense. Insurmountable. Anxiety-inducing.
At our house in Happy Hollow, we have more or less an “open door” policy. And by that we mean that if we have welcomed you into our house and invited you back, that we want you to understand that you are welcome. That when we say “you are always welcome” or “our door is always open to you”, we really really mean that. A fellow I am Quite Fond Of once told me that he neglected to visit because I hadn’t invited him. Because he hadn’t been invited. Because he is the sort of person who needs to hear “Please, Friend, come to our house. We would like to spend time with you.” And for him, he feels *unwelcome* unless the invitation is made. Unless that social contract is opened to him and for him. Over the years, I think we have come to an understanding that when we’re available, we do want to spend time with him and enjoy his company. He is not the only person who becomes Anxious at the idea of inviting himself over. But that is only one side of the social contract.
The other side, of course, is us. We have a growing family, with commitments that press upon our time and availability for socialisation. We welcome our friends into our home and we all have the understanding that our children are, by definition, a part of our social circle. We interact with their friends and they interact with our friends. This is healthy. This fosters good, strong relationships. And we make decisions about committing ourselves to social events outside our home based on whether or not we have time to do so, based on whether or not our children are also invited, and based on whether or not the whole thing would be comfortable for everyone involved. We have had to turn down weddings, celebrations, funerals, games, and trips because we weren’t willing to ditch the kids with a sitter for the weekend…because…and let me be perfectly clear, here…I really enjoy my kids’ company. I enjoy His Nibs’ company. Given my druthers, I druther spend time with them than with just about anyone else in the world. Which is good, I guess, because we’re all stuck with each other.
My point here is that the other side of the social contract is the expectation that I will extend a renewed gesture of invitation for each of our friends, for each social encounter we may host at Chez Relaxo. And just as my friend becomes Anxious at the prospect of visiting someone without an explicit invitation to do so, I become Anxious at the idea of having to extend that invitation every time. Because what if I forget someone? What if I get the time wrong? What if I don’t know what to answer when he asks “what should I bring”? What if I think I’ve invited him three times? What if I actually HAVE invited him three times? Is he going to think I’m pushy? Is he going to think I’m insisting he come? Is he going to think I will be affronted if he declines my invitation?
So the social contract becomes one of an ever-downward-spiralling nexus of anxiety and worry. It seems to be perfectly acceptable (socially) for us to say “I do not intrude on your hospitality; I will not come to you without an invitation to do so”, but somehow it’s not perfectly acceptable (socially) for us to say “I do not wish to intrude on your other commitments; please understand that we would like you to spend time with us”.
More troublesome, however, is the social contract into which we enter when we want to ‘do something’ or to give something to one another. Gift-giving is, for me, usually a spur-of-the-moment thing. A gift may be a trinket or gewgaw I’ve discovered – it may be purchased or it may be found. It’s something I’ve come across which makes me think of you, and then the contract becomes one of strengthening our bond. I want to give this to you because it makes me think of you. Perhaps it is something I have treasured. Perhaps it is something I think you might appreciate. But – and here’s the rub – I expect nothing in return.
In other words, if I choose to wash the dishes at your house, or if I bring over a stack of books as gifts, I am not weighing the measure of my charity against the measure of your charity. I do not ‘keep track’. I do not feel beholden to present you with a gift simply because you have done so for me. And, on this angle, I am utterly terrible at wedding gifts. Christmas gifts. Birthday gifts. Hallmark(tm) Day gifts. All of it, I suck at, and for not upholding this end of our social contract, I apologise. I don’t feel that because you have presented me with something I am then beholden to present you with something. And I CERTAINLY don’t feel that if I have presented something to you, you are then beholden to come up with something to give to me.
This is the part of the social contract that, quite honestly, flummoxes me. I am always quite surprised…quite pleasantly surprised…when someone sees fit to give me a gift. Often because it is shiny, or makes noise, or is a rock found on a vacation in a spot that made you think of me. I understand there are social conventions – norms or mores or what-have-you that I just don’t think about when it comes to gift-giving. I’m also terrible at things like Christmas cards and I still haven’t sent out thank you cards from our wedding (it’s not going to happen. I am a terrible person and it’s just not going to happen. I have them designed and personalised and ready to go, but Ann Landers says that if you’ve waited seven years after your wedding to send out thank you cards, you really ought to just accept that you are a terrible person, most likely possessed by the devil, and that your cruelty and insensitivity probably also means you are related directly to Josef Stalin. Seriously. I’m positive I read that in one of her columns).
So the short version of this whole big long diatribe is that I am completely broken when it comes to upholding social contracts. And I’m sorry about the thank-you cards. I really did appreciate your coming to the wedding