The art of receiving

In December, the always thoughtful Ross Gittins wrote about studies on how spending money on gifts and donations makes people happier than just buying things for themselves. It’s one of many studies that show how economics and altruism can combine to make people more satisfied with their lives.

However, while the art of giving is the subject of much analysis, I’m not sure as much thought is given to how well we receive things – whether it be gifts, help or compliments.

It’s true that some things are too extravagant to accept, and it may be better to demur on those occasions. But some people are unable to accept even the smallest token or word of appreciation, and fight so hard to reject both that the giver may end up feeling like they were trying to pass on something stinky instead of something nice.

It can be hard to accept things graciously. Perhaps we think that by refusing a compliment or offer of help, we’re being thoughtful and modest, or maybe we’re just embarrassed and don’t feel like we deserve it. Mostly, we don’t think how the person at the other end of the exchange feels about our repeated cries of ‘No, no, no, you mustn’t! I can’t!’

When Tim and I returned from three years of living overseas, we came back with almost nothing. We had no jobs to return to and we came back fretful from some things that had happened while living in Poland: notably the murder of our landlord in the downstairs of the building in which we lived. I don’t think we realised how distressed we were at the time, but our need to get home meant that we weren’t able to prepare better for coming home.

We needed help from our friends and our families – and they did not desert us. A friend let us stay in her house until we were settled. That was a few months of two more people in her home, until we could find work and then a flat to live in. It took a little while to be able to contribute towards household costs, too. We tried to be good guests, doing our share of the cleaning and cooking, but it must have been a bit of a strain. Once we moved, she and others helped us to move the little we owned and donated some furniture as well. Everyone was very kind and incredibly generous, particularly as we had no idea when or if we’d ever be able to repay them.

It was my first lesson in learning to receive with grace. I had to accept help knowing we might never repay that help in kind – but knowing that I’d do what I could if they ever needed me. I resolved to pay it forward whenever I could, because kindness and generosity like that is inspiring.

I said a heartfelt thank you, and let my friends help me.

It’s strange how difficult a thing that can be. To let someone help you without feeling guilty, to accept a compliment without protesting too much. Accepting a kindness or a good word with grace is a kind of gift itself. It allows someone the pleasure of giving, which itself can be an act with the subtext of ‘I care about you’.

Friendships aren’t based on keeping a ledger in which you tally up the favours.  As long as you both know that you’ll help out when and where you can, it shouldn’t be a numbers game, weighing up the number and worth of the things you do for each other. That’s a business relationship, not a friendship. Friends do what they can, when they can, however they can, in ways both large and small.

Graciously accepting that compliment or offer of help, with a heartfelt thank you, is freeing, as well. It feels good to let your friends be nice to you, and builds up positive feelings which make it easy to be there for others when they need you.

So learn to accept those declarations of friendship and love with grace and a smile, and give them in return, unconditionally. It’s an art, I know, but one worth learning.

  • rmp

    Not sure how I should thank you for this blog post, if at all? And if anyone wants to feel happier by giving away money I will, as a special favour, accept it.

    • You could always simply pay me a compliment. “Narrelle, you have excellent taste in fonts” would suffice.

      I have put you at the top of the list of ‘people I should give money to if I ever have any’.

  • Very true, all of it!

    I think many women in particular often find it incredibly hard to accept compliments or gifts, and end up making things more awkward for everyone because of their need (either ingrained, socialised or both) to deny or protest such things.

    I have a friend who loves to give overly generous gifts, and while it really does embarrass us and other friends at times, she so genuinely enjoys the process of choosing and bestowing the gift that we have learned to say thank you, and occasionally to have each other’s backs in steering her towards slightly less extravagant or expensive choices.

    Sometimes it’s just as selfish to refuse someone the joy of giving as it is to never give anything at all…

    • Indeed. I have a friend who is very generous, particularly in gift-giving. Her income levels are way ahead of mine, so I’ll never be able to match it. But she seems to get real pleasure out of it. I try to find other ways to show my appreciation and love besides gifts.

      I had guests once who made it difficult to even make them a cup of tea. They found ways of deflecting even that small thing. I went from frustrated to hurt to a bit cross, to tell the truth. It felt like they were terrified they’d owe me something, though I’m pretty sure that’s not the case at all. But it was awkward.

  • A lot of people are happy to give but not very gracious on the receiving side. Accepting help, compliments and gifts with a gracious “Thank you!” is a rare art which is very much appreciated by the givers. It’s well worth learning as it’s so well appreciated too. Well put above.

    • It’s amazing how hurtful it can be offer help or a compliment and have it rejected in a very thorough fashion. I was once told that it was Arab custom to decline three times but accept the fourth, as it showed proper humility and made sure the offer was genuinely meant. Maybe it’s a reasonable approach. (Mind you, I have no idea how culturally correct it is.)

  • naturallydotty

    Wonderfully said.