Sometimes It’s Better NOT To Be Generous


There’s a time to be generous and there’s a time to be selfish too

If you’re dealing with a hard bargainer you’ll need to be less generous than if you’re dealing with a giver. Give and take requires balanced counter-pressure. We should be as generous and selfish as we need to be to maintain give and take. Give as good as you get, and expect to get as good as you give.

If you are from a cutthroat community where competition is fierce, generosity will be your ruin. In a community of softies, selfishness is unjustified.

Most people ignore this. They declare that generosity is always good–the more the better, and selfishness is always bad–to be avoided at all costs. And as complicated as it is to calibrate to context, the challenge is more complicated still.

Setting aside the positive connotations of “generous” and negative connotations of “selfish,” the words speak to a strategic question. Where to relax a boundary and where to enforce a boundary?

We have lots of loaded terms that speak to boundary setting. For example when we think its right to relax a boundary, we call it “kindness, niceness, accommodation, helping,empathy, compassion.” When we think it’s wrong to relax a boundary, we call it “giving in, spinelessness, selling out, buckling, caving, backing down, being a pushover.”

When we think it’s right to enforce a boundary we call it “defending, standing up for, upholding, protecting.” When we think it’s bad to enforce a boundary we call it, “aggression, greed, indulgence, stealing.”

But where is the boundary? Setting aside legal and contractual contexts, it’s generally unmarked, subject to interpretation, or actually invented, often on the fly and largely subjectively. Debates are most often about where to “draw the line,” not where to defend an official fixed line. It’s more like drawing a line in the sand than pointing to the line cast in stone.

And no matter how moral we think we are, we tend to draw those lines in the sand self-servingly. When we think others have overstepped the boundary that would serve us best, we call them selfish. But we don’t call ourselves selfish for overstepping the boundary that would serve them best. Instead, we call it defending our territory against their selfishness. And we chide them about not being generous.

Thus, by claiming that generosity is a pure virtue and selfishness is a pure vice, those who think of themselves as promoting high moral standards gain a way to act out low moral standards:

Draw the line wherever it serves you, and accuse those who cross it of being selfish. Declare yourself to be, “more than generous” wherever you draw the line and scold others for being ungenerous when they disagree with where you drew it.

Regardless of whether we subscribe to the myth that generosity is good and selfishness is bad, we all err toward defending boundaries more than relaxing them, simply because generosity in the wrong context costs us more than selfishness in the wrong context. If you’ve overly generous with serious takers, they’ll rob you blind, but if you’re overly selfish with givers you’ll come out OK or better than OK.

Still, erring toward defending boundaries leads to escalating conflict. To avoid that, there’s something to our efforts to counteract it. We say give peace, love and generosity a chance.

A chance, or even two. Maybe one more chance than your gut thinks you should. But not an infinite number of chances. If you keep giving an inch and they keep taking a mile, you’ll rightly stop giving inches. They may call you selfish and demand that you be more generous. Ignore them.

The question isn’t whether to be generous or selfish but in which context to be which, where to draw the lines fairly, a question that isn’t resolved by self-certain subjective declarations of who’s being generous and who’s being selfish.

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© Copyright 2015 Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.