Building Relationships Where People Are Real

by Ken Westhues

Frederick Douglass had a feeling something was wrong. The Maryland economy of the early nineteenth century was humming along smoothly enough. There were plantations like the one where he spent his first eight years. There was Baltimore, the city where he grew into a teenager. Like any of us, Douglass encountered his society as a given, an established, pre-existing order into which he was expected to fit.

Yet Douglass could not bring himself to accept things as they were. Outwardly he conformed, knowing he would otherwise be beaten, or sold to a crueler master. Inwardly, he recoiled.

Douglass described in his autobiography that his youthful feeling of something wrong remained unfocussed and without effect until he learned a word that captured the goal to strive for. It was abolition, a word the barely literate young slave had trouble pronouncing and spelling, let alone understanding. The word nonetheless gave such order to his and others' restless minds that they could challenge the social order then entrenched throughout the South. The word guided their struggle for decades. Eventually, the abolition of slavery was achieved, and the human project moved a step ahead.

As the twentieth century draws to a close in Canada, we find ourselves in an economic and social order richer and kinder than the one Douglass grew up in. Ours is subtler and more complex. Yet something inside us recoils. The human project needs to advance in our time, too. We need a word to clarify our restless minds and define a goal.


Ten years ago, in a lecture at the University of Western Ontario, I described the word that had done for me what the word abolition had done for Frederick Douglass. My word, too, was hard to pronounce and spell: reciprocity. Being more abstract, it was even harder to understand. Yet it gripped my own and others' minds, defining the goal to strive for.

The Working Centre's newsletter was among the places my lecture was published. In subsequent meetings and classes at the centre, the concept of reciprocity came to be discussed. It has continued to pop up in conversation. Here I describe again what reciprocity means, especially in the workplace, and update my study of it.

In briefest terms, reciprocity describes an ongoing relationship in which the parties talk and listen to one another in turn, each responding to the other so that what actually happens is genuinely new, beyond what anybody could have decided in advance.

Steps toward reciprocity

Reciprocity involves more than exchange. In their relationship to one another, a master and a slave do indeed make a trade. Food is exchanged for work. Yet there is almost no reciprocity. The master speaks. The slave listens. The master decides what will happen. The slave obeys. One party is a tool in the other's hands.

The abolition of slavery freed slaves and masters from a kind of relationship that diminished the humanity of both. Once owning and being owned were ruled out, people became more able to come to terms with one another in a precisely human way, in an ongoing process of give and take.

Even now, circumstances sometimes prevent reciprocity. An accident victim is wheeled unconscious into a hospital emergency room. A doctor takes charge, administers life support, sets broken bones. In this situation, one side calls all the shots. The other can only acquiesce.

Suppose that weeks later the patient and physician meet. "Thank you for saving my life," the patient says. "I must also thank you," the physician answers. "Your accident gave me the chance to do a procedure I had almost forgotten how to do."

Overhearing this conversation, you would feel pleased. Two people required by an emergency to relate to one another in a dominative-submissive way, nonetheless salvaged some reciprocity in the end. Each acknowledged the other's gift.

The work of childrearing is sometimes thought to preclude reciprocity. Young children obviously do not know what is best for them. When a toddler is about to electrocute herself at a wall socket, the first thing you, as a parent, do is forcibly snatch the child from danger. She may cry at this tyranny. You take action first, explain things later.

Yet at its best, childrearing is less a matter of teaching children rules than of introducing them to the distinctly human possibility of reciprocal relationships.

On a chilly October day I decided it was time to move the leaf pile off the lawn and into the woods. We had made it for our kindergartner son to jump in. He liked the leaf pile and wanted it to stay put. I explained that this would kill the grass, that it was time to compost the leaves. He objected vigorously. I could feel the tension build. I knew what he wanted. He knew what I wanted. One side would win. I was thinking it was time for a father to lay down the law. "Dad," he said, "if you would move the leaf pile just to the edge of the woods, it would be off the grass and I could still jump in it."

What shame I felt, and at once delight! Out of the difference between my son and me there had emerged a new alternative, and he was the one who thought of it. I had been ready on that occasion to behave like a know-it-all parent and treat my son like a baby. He showed me the better way, allowing a fresh, mutually agreeable alternative to arise from the honest confrontation of conflicting points of view.

Democracy, dialogue, covenant

Everyday life among Canadian adults, whether at home or at work, need not be patterned on the relationship between master and slave, ER physician and unconscious patient, or parent and young child.

"As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master," Abraham Lincoln wrote. "This expresses my idea of democracy."

The survival of Canada as a democratic society depends on our avoiding, in so far as possible, the kind of relationship where one side dominates and the other submits. It requires cultivating in all aspects of life relationships where people face each other squarely, even go head to head, thereby awakening their capacity to make history.

Whether argument and debate are signs of poor relations depends on how differences are resolved. If the stakes are win-lose and the winner takes all, conflict does no one any good. On the other hand, without the friction of mutual human movement, no relationship goes anywhere. Differences have to be admitted, hashed out, and allowed to give birth to new options. There is no other way to move ahead.

The Israeli sociologist, Martin Buber, wrote at length about the kind of relationship described here as reciprocal. A human society, he said, should not be like a colony of ants or termites, where every creature does some designated task faithfully and stupidly. It should not be like the Milky Way, wherein each star moves on its predetermined path.

"But if I and another come up against one another," Buber wrote, "the sum does not exactly divide, there is a remainder somewhere, where the souls end and the world has not yet begun, and this remainder is what is essential." This is what makes life human: what happens between people when they forget their separate selves enough to answer to one another.

The word dialogue is sometimes used to describe the encounter between people that Buber had in mind. The word has often rung phoney in my ears-icky and sanctimonious. At its best, dialogue means talking straight, without stock phrases, in words formulated on the spot in response to somebody else doing the same thing.

Everybody knows what a contract means. It is tit for tat, the nailing down of an agreement that if I do this, you will do that. The object is to eliminate surprise.

A reciprocal relationship is more than a contract. I open myself to your demands, you to mine, we surrender ourselves to a common goal beyond words, trusting that our pursuit of it will produce a mutually agreeable surprise. This is our covenant. It is a more human undertaking than a contract, and it promises a more satisfactory result.

Reciprocity is practical

The standard objection to any proposed step toward reciprocity in workplace relations is that the rate and quality of goods produced will fall. Defenders of slavery in Douglass's time argued that abolition was a nice idea, just unrealistic: it would wreck the economy of the South.

In fact, slavery was uneconomic as well as cruel. Workers who are denied a say in what they do work sluggishly. Decision-makers exempt from listening make bad decisions.

In my lecture ten years ago, I used the just completed renovation of my family's home to illustrate the tangible benefits of reciprocity at work. We had taken possession of an old house one month before moving in. We had set aside that month to give the building a complete overhaul. I worked with about 25 tradespeople to get the job done.

The carpenter-call him Hans-and I achieved a fair amount of reciprocity. Somehow, we hit it off. We discussed at the start roughly what needed to be done and the cost of it. A handshake began our covenant. There was no boss. Nobody could boss Hans. He had too keen a sense of human equality. "We all finish in the same hole," he said.

For 20 days running Hans, his helper and I worked side by side, negotiating our way through every step of the project. "We need to build the wall here," I would say. "That will make the closet too small," Hans would answer. "Have you thought of putting it a little to the left?" his helper would interject.

"How do you want this finished?" Hans would ask. "What makes best sense to you?" I would ask in reply.

Sometimes Hans arrived at the job site with coffee for all of us. Sometimes I did. Sometimes we both did. When to start the workday and when to end it, which jobs to do first and which later, which materials to buy and who should pick them up: all these were issues of quick, easy, joint decision.

None of us could have specified at the start how beautiful and functional was the result of our mutual labour. No blueprint, even a computer-assisted one, could have captured it beforehand. In truth, we surprised ourselves.

Still, what we gained from those intense weeks of work went beyond the house my family continues to enjoy. Also beyond the thousands of dollars Hans and his helper made. What we gained went beyond even the development of our skills in carpentry and cabinet-making. We exchanged gifts at the end. It seemed the right thing to do. At bottom, we had gained some mutual personal enrichment for continuing our respective parts in the mysterious drama of life.

Consider, by contrast, how things went with the electricians. George, the owner of the company, walked with me through the house, writing down what I wanted done. I signed the contract for the specified price. Then two of his employees came to do the work, George's list in hand.

They were pleasant fellows, not very communicative but regular as clocks. At precisely 10:15 they would drop their tools and go sit in their truck for coffee break.

"Wait," I said, "you can't put the stove outlet there." They had surface-mounted it so that the stove would not sit flush against the wall.
"But the wall is concrete," the employee answered.
"Then we'll have to put the outlet somewhere else."
"But it says on Roy's list to put it there." The terms of my relationship to these electricians did not extend to the exercise of imagination when coming up against an unexpected concrete wall.

Weeks after we moved in, we noticed that the bathroom exhaust fan made noise but moved no air. The problem, so I discovered in the attic, was that the electricians had vented the fan into an enclosed pile of insulation. I complained.

"Well it didn't say on George's list where to vent it," came the reply.

Clearly, the electricians and I achieved little reciprocity in our relationship. The wiring did more or less get done and money changed hands, but something was missing that diminished at once the quality of the work and the quality of our lives.

Shoddy workmanship is a major problem in the Canadian economy, apparent in all sectors, from the building trades to financial services. The commonly proposed solution is to reduce workers' freedom by more detailed written specification of the terms of exchange and by closer surveillance. It is the echo of what slaveowners said: "The only way to get any work out of 'em is to tell 'em exactly what to do and watch 'em like a hawk."

The rooms I live in remind me daily of the better solution: the reciprocal, truly human relations that gave these rooms their size, shape, and character. Hans has moved abroad. We have not met since many years. I hope that he, like me, still feels the bond between us. Contracts end. Covenants endure, even from one generation to the next.

I have recalled our home renovation also while watching the renovation this year of the Working Centre's building on Queen Street. Staff and volunteers at the Centre have carried this enormous project out by the same principles of reciprocity that guided my work at home with Hans. They, too, have surprised themselves by the aesthetic and functional excellence of the result. That is the least they have gained.

Insurance against tyranny

Reciprocal relationships add up. If we have the experience of engaged, mutually responsive talking and listening in decorating rooms, cooking meals, planning vacations, attending meetings, playing sports, earning a living, and the other little activities of everyday life, we thereby become trustworthy citizens of society as a whole.

"It is especially dangerous," Alexis de Toqueville, the great student of democracy, wrote, "to enslave men in the minor details of life. ... Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated." It is not enough, he insisted, that people have the chance to vote in elections from time to time. If people endure subjection in everyday affairs, they gradually lose the ability to think, feel, and act for themselves, and fall prey to demagogues.

If Toqueville were alive today, he would be horrified to see millions of Canadians unquestioningly following manuals of policy and procedure in their jobs. He would be aghast at how many Canadians take it for granted that paid work basically consists in taking orders from a boss. People who are tools in a boss's hands at work, Toqueville warned, become tools in a tyrant's hands after hours.

On the other hand, Toqueville would take heart from a tour of the newly renovated Working Centre, where dozens of people every day surprise one another in collaborative, self-help initiatives. Wherever Toqueville would see people on the job, at leisure or at home engaged in give and take, taking turns, at once acting and being acted upon, showing pride at the same time as humility, forming little covenants, he would see grounds for hope. Citizens on top of their private lives do not cower before public authorities.

Seven essential attributes

Students in class have often asked me for a checklist of attributes of reciprocity in relationships. Then they have laughed when the list of six attributes I promised becomes, after class discussion, a list of five or nine. Not to worry, I tell them. Truly human relationships are not scored.

Even so, for clarifying points implicit in the stories told above, a list of seven defining characteristics of a reciprocal relationship may be of help.

  • First, the people involved have freedom not just to choose among predetermined alternatives but to formulate alternatives of their own. The childhood norm of I-divide-and-you-choose is not enough (though it is better than no choice at all). In a reciprocal relationship, people can decide freely the what, when, where, why and how of their collaborative effort.
  • Second, in the process of making decisions and carrying them out, the parties listen to one another's preferences and let their own preferences be shaped by those of others. In the end it may not be clear whose idea it was to do things this way or that. The focus is less on individual viewpoints than on points of convergence. In contractual relations, pursuing self-interest is enough. A covenant serves a common bond.
  • Third, while equality of power and resources is not required (this being unattainable anyway), each person involved has a say and makes a difference. One does not command while the others submit. Each has countervailing power, acting upon the others in such a way as to affect what goes on. People touch one another. In Buber's phrase, they "happen" to each other.
  • Fourth, any tangible product of the relationship has to be seen as the outcome of the interaction of the people involved, in size, shape, colour, also the volume and timing of production. Participants can see themselves in what is made.
  • Fifth, if the rules governing the interaction are written down, there is common understanding that words on paper do not capture all the relationship involves, that written rules can be revised by the people subject to them, and that trust supersedes formalities. Nobody is just going by the book.
  • Sixth, the relationship brims with spontaneity and surprise. The people involved take turns sometimes, look for ways to develop one another's skills, and try out new ideas. The relationship has a feeling of movement and dynamism. It seems to go somewhere. It is not routine drudgery.
  • Seventh, each of the parties is personally engaged. This does not mean loss of privacy. One need not "bare all" in order to join another in reciprocal relations. One must, however, believe in what is being done and honestly speak one's mind. Hidden agendas have no place. Thus each party has the feeling in due course of having grown as a person through this relationship. No one is ever after quite the same.

Practical ways to serve the goal

If reciprocity in human relations is a worthy goal, the important question is how to serve this goal at this time and place in history.

My answer ten years ago emphasized public policy. The first priority, it seemed to me at the time, was to persuade governments to set limits on the size and power of large corporations, to decentralize and democratize the economy, so that more people would have more chance to do good work together, the way Hans and I did.

Today, political efforts to change law and policy are less practical. Over the past decade, every single sector of the Canadian economy-from mining to banking, newspapers to funeral homes, education to retail sales-has become more centralized, more bureaucratized, and more tightly integrated into global capitalism. Relations in most workplaces are more competitive, contractual, and controlled than ever. In the main, governments have given up trying to resist these trends. Global corporate capitalism has mostly escaped public control.

That we are all to some degree enslaved by this economic system is obvious. Is there anyone who has not shopped at a big-box store? Yet in relative terms, our slavery is of an indulgent kind. No economic system in history has served up consumer goods so efficiently as ours does. None has had such an effective propaganda tool as today's advertising industry. No religion in times past was so potent an opiate of the masses as tabloid TV, lotteries, casinos, pornography, spectator sports, alcohol, and drugs, all woven into our way of life.

One should not beat one's head against a wall. No government in Canada's foreseeable future is going to risk substantial interference in the Big Economy. Until war, civil strife or ecological disaster brings a serious drop in the standard of living, with widespread suffering and death, the Big Economy is going to proceed by its own logic and on its own terms. Even critics will acquiesce.

The subtitle of a recent book suggests the more practical emphasis in the situation at hand: dance around the dinosaurs. The idea is to cooperate with the system as much as is necessary to satisfy subsistence needs (food, shelter, housing), and spend the rest of one's time and energy cultivating relationships where people are real. You do not defy the Big Economy or pretend it isn't there, lest it crush you. Instead you dodge around it, building grass-roots covenants to enrich your own and others' lives.

An Hungarian sociologist named Endre Sik has described how citizens in his country danced around the Big Socialist dinosaurs that formerly held sway. Faced with an inefficient, bureaucratized, state-controlled housing system, people got together with relatives and friends, traded skills and labour, shared tools, and built their own houses. They bought some of their food in the big government stores, but got much of it from their own gardens and local farmers' markets. Instead of battling a system that seemed impervious to change, citizens created an informal, unofficial, democratic web of reciprocal relations for getting things done and giving meaning to their lives.

As the continuing vitality of Waterloo Region's farmers' markets testifies, Canadians are responding to the dreary impersonality of Big Capitalist dinosaurs in a similar way. They keep an eye out for sales in supermarkets and shopping malls, but wherever possible, deal creatively with human beings they know and trust.

Here are half a dozen related practical ways of dancing around the dinosaurs that have come to rule Canada.

  • In so far as possible, stay away from people who behave hierarchically, as if humans were chickens in a pecking order, or as if some human always has to be top dog. Be friendly to all, but avoid people whom the system has swallowed up. Listen to people who listen to you.
  • Make a list of people with whom you have in some way successfully danced during the past year. Think of ways to develop these relations further, to let them go somewhere. That is how history is made. Ease yourself out of relations that deny who you are and prevent you from becoming more.
  • Avoid TV and other forms of passive entertainment. Prefer newspapers, books, and above all, two-way conversation with live human beings.
  • Instead of dreaming on games of chance, dream on what you can do with your own work and skill: make a tasty meal, sew a garment, write a letter to a newspaper, say something upbeat that will make a store clerk's day.
  • Refuse to limit yourself to the specialized job into which you are slotted by the Big Economy. Refuse this especially if no such jobs are available. The larger your repertoire of skills, the more able you will be to connect with others in mutually satisfying ways.
  • Resist the bombardment of advertising. Take time for silent reflection on your current social location, its benefits and liabilities. Otherwise you will miss the fresh opportunities that are right under your nose.

Exchanging gifts

For learning more about reciprocity, and about practical ways to put more of it into your own and others' lives, the books and articles on the accompanying list may be helpful.

On the other hand, further study at this point may not be your best priority. Already, by reading to the end of this long article, you have received a gift from the Working Centre and me. It is your turn now to decide what to do with this gift. Will you put it in the recycling pile, implicitly marked "return to sender"? Will you pass it on to a friend? Will you tell somebody what you liked and didn't like about it? Will you allow it to influence your own actions in some way?

What you do with the analysis offered here is up to you. That is how reciprocity works. One party gives something, thereby placing on another the burden of giving something in return. No one knows in advance what that something might be, when or where it might be given, or to whom. One thing sure: human interaction gets no better than this. It is the human way of responding to the gift of life.

Read more about reciprocity

Carol Bly, Changing the Bully Who Rules the World (Minneapolis: Milkweed, 1996). Bly combines literature and psychology to spell out the essentials of personal moral development. Her first major point is that there are no natural followers, no natural leaders. Empathy, as she discusses it, is prerequisite to participation in reciprocal relationships.

David Schwartz, Who Cares? Rediscovering Community (Boulder: Westview, 1997). The contrast here is between the formal, institutional systems of caring for people in need, and the informal, personal relationships through which most caring actually takes place. Schwartz builds on the work of Ivan Illich, Wendell Barry, and John McKnight.

Wayne Roberts and Susan Brandum, Get a Life! How to Make a Good Buck, Dance around the Dinosaurs, and Save the World While You're At It (Toronto: Get a Life Publishing House, 1995). True to its title, this book is packed with description of successsful, enlivening, grass-roots initiatives outside the Big Economy.

Jane Buchan, Transformation in Canada's Deep South (Waterloo: Blue Crow, 1996). An interpretive survey of ways people in this bioregion are reclaiming work. Buchan writes: "When we consciously enter into reciprocity with one another and everything our shared place includes, we are imitating the interdependent communities found in ecosystems throughout Southwestern Ontario and the rest of the world."

William Luttrell, Transforming Communities (Halifax: Fernwood, 1997). Luttrell claims: "Capitalist patriarchy is destroying itself; we don't need to overthrow it. Instead, nurture new life, and new communities, out of the ruin and disarray of the old." His book is a practical guide.

Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (Boston: Beacon, 1955). According to Buber, the fundamental fact of human existence is neither the individual or the group. It is "man with man," that "something takes place between one being and another the like of which can be found nowhere in nature."

Alvin Gouldner, For Sociology (New York: Basic Books, 1973). This collection of essays by the late American scholar includes his two articles on reciprocity. A heavy academic book, but one with powerful implications for social action.

Endre Sik, "Reciprocal Exchange of Labour in Hungary," in Ray Pahl, ed., On Work (London: Basil Blackwell, 1988). The main example here is home construction, but the basic conceptualization applies far more broadly.

Janice M. Morse, "Reciprocity for Care: Gift Giving in the Patient-Nurse Relationship," Canadian Journal of Nursing Research 21 (spring 1989). Unidirectional caring is a debilitating gift, Morse points out, and nurses feel stress when patients are denied ways of saying thanks.

Ira Shor and Paulo Freire, A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education (South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1987). Education can be part of the Big Economy, a tool for stuffing the latter into students' heads. On the other hand, if founded on dialogue, education can epitomize reciprocity. This is the kind of education Shor and Freire discuss in this book.

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