On helping – reciprocity, deference and demeanour

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So after ‘Getting started‘, I have now read Chapter Two of Schein’s book on Helping.  Chapter Two is a bit of a scene setter about the cross-cultural principles underpinning social life and relationships in general – rather than about helping per se.  Schein emphasises that it is important to understand this “essence of relationships” so that the special-ness of a helping relationship can then be understood.

In order to help explain the dynamics of interactions, conversations and relationships, Schein draws on two powerful metaphors that are very much part of our everyday language.

The first of these is (social) economics with metaphors like pay attention; pay your dues.  Social economics draws attention to the fact that every day interactions are in fact transactions using currencies such as love, trust, acknowledgement, attention and so on.  All interactions need reciprocity – if you give, you expect thanks; if you let a car go by, you expect a wave; if you offer help, you expect it to be taken or an excuse given; if you ask for help, you expect it to be given or an excuse given.

The second of these is (social) theatre with metaphors like play your part; give a performance.  Social theatre draws attention to the fact that in any situation, there are appropriate roles to be adopted and a lot of interchange is actually little ‘scenes’ where people are adopting roles according to the situation and following sets of ‘rules’ that are instilled as part of our culture.  In many situations there is a power element to the relationship – parent/child; boss/subordinate; queen/citizen; doctor/patient etc etc and this is where the cultural ‘rules’ of deference and demeanour come in.  The higher the status, the more formalised and prescribed the rules of demeanour.

These two dimensions of interactions come into play all the time.  In a particular setting, I adopt a role (say the role of knowledgeable person about a particular issue) – associated with this role is a claim to a certain value and to a certain response (that someone will listen to what I have to say about the relevant issue).  If you don’t uphold my claim (e.g. you don’t listen to me) then I loose ‘face’ – as this makes you look ‘rude’, you too would loose ‘face’ so you’d tend to avoid that.  In upholding my claim (by listening to me seriously) you acknowledge me but you could go on to then stake your own claim (by  adding info about the issue to show that you too are knowledgeable) – and so the interchange goes on.

This dynamic is interesting in itself and since I first read the chapter yesterday, I have been really aware of the little exchanges that happen.  I was out jogging, saw another jogger coming towards me and smiled, they smiled back.  Next one I smiled at did not smile back – how rude I thought.  Was sitting at the front of our house having a coffee with my husband, some neighbours went by, we said ‘hello’, they didn’t say anything back, my husband explained this by ‘they obviously didn’t hear us’ – because anything otherwise would mean that they are rude.

But there are some specific bits of the chapter that have interesting implications for other interests of mine.

Our self-esteem is based on continual acknowledgement through reciprocation that what we have claimed for ourselves has been accepted and confirmed (page 16).

This process of perpetual mutual reinforcement is the essence of society (page 16)

..if we were to disregard these rules and stop acknowledging each other, social life would deteriorate rapidly into individualistic, competitive mob behaviour and anxiety levels would rocket. (page 16)

There are two trains of thought that these statements lead me into.

The first is that self-esteem is protective of good health – even people who have an illness will recover better (or deteriorate slower) if they have a feeling of self-worth or self-esteem.  Yet a lot of the time, when you are ‘cared for’ or a ‘patient’, there is little that you can claim for yourself – you are nearly always on the receiving end – and people who are caring for you are so short of time that they have little time to ‘properly’ acknowledge you as a person.  I think that is another dimension of the rise in asset-based approaches – to try and draw out that someone who receives, can also give.  Interventions like time banks and so on formalise this type of exchange.

The second train of thought is about our unequal and increasingly segregated society – in their book, the Spirit Level, Wilkinson and Picket talk about the concept of status competition and how that is greater in more unequal societies – people in different parts of the social ‘spectrum’ rarely get to meet, so do ‘stop acknowledging each other’…on a societal level we are getting individualistic, competitive behaviour and anxiety levels are rocketing.  Scary stuff.  From a systems thinking perspective, this is why being aware of those who are ‘affected but not involved’ is really important – are we accepting and confirming what those stakeholders are claiming for themselves.

The chapter also talks about Trust and Intimacy.  As two people get to know each other, they each reveal more intimate things about themselves – how much they reveal depends on how much they trust the other person not to use that information in a way that will make us look bad.  Trust is all about the safety of your self-esteem.  The level of intimacy a relationship reaches reflects degree of trust – up to that point there has been ‘mutual testing’.

So there is this normal flow of interaction, which gets ‘interupted’ when someone asks for help.. that is what the next chapter is about….


Schein, E.H., 2009. Helping: how to offer, give and receive help First ed., San Francisco, CA: Berret-Koehler Publishers.

Wilkinson, R. & Pickett, K., 2010. The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone, London: Penguin Books.

One thought on “On helping – reciprocity, deference and demeanour

  1. Hi Helen
    I find it fascinating that you are reading a book like this. I haven’t read it but your perspectives on the opening 2 chapters reminds me about helping others and servanthood. The classic perspective of a servant is a ‘slave’ – someone who is a lower social status and does all the menial tasks. But the real definition of a servant is a as helper – a “come-alongsider” – a ‘counsellor’ in the broadest sense of that word – even at times a doer. But its about teaching a man to fish and you will feed him for life.

    This reminds me of the most popular book in the world which is the Bible – a blueprint for living, and living life to the full and especially the teachings of Jesus for developing a servant mentality. He talks a lot about helping, serving, relationships and the social dynamic (and so much more) and from a divine rather than academic or human perspective that I guess you might get from Schein. Of course, Schein may have written with such divine leading so I will continue to read your blog with interest.

    Jesus teaches me a counter-intuitive truth that to ‘take my eyes off myself’ look to the needs of others continually always provides me, ultimately, with everything I need (not that this is the reason or purpose to do this but to do so honours God and my relationship with Him and builds my character). It comes from a deep trusting and intimate relationship with God through Jesus. I still have a lot to learn to become better at this practice but I am working on it :-). So helping others in all that they do becomes vitally important in creating strong trusting relationships that leads to vibrant social climate as Schein says. Unfortunately not everyone gets this which is why people frequently resort to WIIFM – its all about what they can get out of it – and 20th/21st century western culture has reinforced this – but the real winners are the helpers- the true servants. To quote Jesus, “Whoever wants to be the most important must make others more important than themselves. They must serve everyone else.” (The Bible, Easy-to-read version, Mark 9:35).

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