Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Cynicism or Human Understanding?

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 24, 2011

“A gift is a form of coercion,” I say, trying to point out that human behavior is about multiple motivations, both conscious and unconscious. “You are cynical,” Stu says to me, with a tone of both surprise and contempt. “When I give a gift, it is because I feel good about a person,” Stu says, as if there is nothing more to talk about. His wife, Deirdre, also in my consultation room, chimes in, “I think she is trying to say that human behavior is complicated.” Stu responds rapidly, “yes, but to say that a gift is coercion seems to take the joy out of the process. I like giving people gifts.  I don’t care what they think of me.” “I understand that,” I respond, trying to point out the layers of meaning in every action, “at the same time, I can imagine that when you give someone a gift, you hope they appreciate the gift and you hope they appreciate the giver as well. There are expectations associated with gift-giving which can lead to loving feelings, but other times, it can lead to anger and disappointment,” I respond. “This is silly,” Stu says. Deirdre stays patient, but responds quietly, “this is not silly. We need to understand our expectations from one another so that we can get along. I do appreciate you when you get me gifts and I hope that you appreciate me when I do the same. I am not trying to manipulate you, but I am trying to generate some positive feelings when I get you presents.” “Now I think you are both cynical,” Stu says, “but I will think about what you are saying. Right now it sounds crazy to me.” “I am glad you are open to thinking about these ideas that on first pass sound absurd to you.” I say, feeling optimistic, but also concerned that Stu sees  motivation as purely altruistic and then he defends his thinking by attacking me. At the same time, I begin to think, where does understanding the selfish nature of human behavior end and cynicism begin? Stu does raise a good point. Human behavior, when thought about in stark terms, can sound cynical. The challenge is understanding layers, especially while under stress. “Gifts are also a really nice part of relationships,” I say, reminding Stu, Deirdre and myself that the nice layer is important too.

4 Responses to “Cynicism or Human Understanding?”

  1. Shelly said

    So what is cynicism? Is it the combination of anger and disappointment one feels as the outcome of being repeatedly hurt by life events? Apparently Stu has never felt that he owed anybody because he received a gift. He has never been given a gift based on conditions. That’s a good thing. No wonder he’s not cynical. He’s never experienced the downside of receiving a “gift.” Giving a gift may be a truly altruistic experience for the giver, but sometimes, there is an ulterior motive behind it. A gift with strings attached.

  2. Defining cynicism is hard. I think the word implies a certain negativity, although you add that it might come from pain and suffering. Understanding ulterior motives makes one look at the dark side of human nature. Stu opts out of seeing those things, to the utter frustration of his wife. Their different cognitive styles has created marital conflicts, because they criticize each other for how they see their worlds.

  3. Jon said

    To be cynical is to be distrusting or disparaging of the motives of others. Similarly, being cynical is to be showing contempt for the accepted standards of honesty by one’s actions, especially the actions that exploit the scruples of others.

    So, Shirah, is it cynical to say that “a gift is a form of coercion?” Definitely. Is it wrong to make this statement? Not at all – as it stimulates the conversation that you have described. There are multiple levels of emotion and motivation for gift giving. Understanding some of these levels of expectations and motivations helps to understand more of the human condition. This can hopefully improve one’s understanding of oneself and one’s relationships with others. The best of luck as you help Stu (and Deirdre) through these murky seas.

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