Is a thank-you gift a gracious gesture or another example of pay-to-play?
A few months back, a casting director I met through a paid workshop called me in and cast me for a co-star part on a cable series. Recently, the casting director’s name came up in a conversation with my friend, and I mentioned that she had cast me. “Oh, what did you send her?” my friend asked. “I always just send flowers, but I wonder if that’s cliché.” It never occurred to me to send a casting director flowers as a thank-you for casting me. As far as I’m concerned, she did her job, I did my job, and a gift isn’t part of the equation. I feel like sending her a gift would be almost like bribing her to cast me again. Isn’t there something dishonest about giving someone a gift for doing their job? It’s not like I send my plumber flowers for unclogging my toilet.
Confused and Bristly
Your question puts Mama in mind of a story. It’s a longish story, but it pays off, so bear with me. When my sister Gwen was a junior in high school, she was extremely intimidated by her brilliant but standoffish chemistry teacher, Mrs. Trang, to the point that it was affecting her performance in class. When my mother told Gwen to ask Mrs. Trang for extra help, she claimed that Mrs. Trang was too scary to ask, and, moreover, Mrs. Trang hated her. Luckily, my wise and sainted Granny happened to be visiting at the time. “What do you like about Mrs. Trang?” Granny asked my sister. “Surely there must be something.” After initially protesting, Gwen admitted that Mrs. Trang dressed beautifully. “So here is what you do,” said my Granny. “You wait until the next time Mrs. Trang is wearing something you really like, and then, after class, you compliment her on it.” And my sister did. (She didn’t have long to wait, because Mrs. Trang really did have great clothes.) The Tuesday after my Granny’s visit, Gwen approached her teacher after class and timidly told her that she admired her silk scarf. Mrs. Trang was momentarily taken aback, and then she smiled and thanked Gwen. They didn’t forge a lifelong bond or anything, but she was warmer to my sister after that, and Gwen found it easier to relax in her class, and ask for the help she needed.
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There are three acceptable reasons to give a gift: to fulfill the social contract, to celebrate an event, and/or out of the fullness of feeling. Your argument is that there is something dishonest about giving a gift to someone for doing their job—that you are pretending to be grateful for a service that doesn’t deserve gratitude, because the giver is paid for performing it. But receiving payment cannot preclude anyone from deserving a gift, because gifts by definition are not earned, they are given. As long as one of the three criteria for gift-giving are met, a gift is appropriate. If your plumber did an especially brisk job of unclogging your toilet, it would be entirely appropriate to send him on his way with both a check and a plate of chocolate chip cookies.
Now, say you dislike the idea that the social contract has expanded to normalize the custom of actors giving casting directors gifts when they book a job. Maybe you find it distasteful, or see it as an additional financial burden on actors, or find the transactional undertone unpleasant. I understand. I personally find the idea of “push presents” given by husbands to their wives upon the delivery of a baby distasteful. But I can’t deny that the successful birthing of a baby is a legitimate cause for gift-giving, because it meets two of the prescribed criteria: it’s a cause for celebration, and, presumably, the husband is giving the gift out of the fullness of sincere feeling.
You also seem to think that it is disingenuous to give a gift to someone who you are hoping will be of further service to you. As such, you might take exception to my Granny’s advice to Gwen about Mrs. Trang: you might consider it manipulative to compliment someone in order to make them like you. But note, my Granny did not tell my sister: “Just compliment her next outfit.” She said, “Wait until she wears something you really like, and then compliment her on it.” In other words, she advised my sister to compliment Mrs. Trang out of the sincere fullness of feeling (in this case, her admiration for a silk scarf). This is likely why it worked—a compliment, appropriately given, is itself a kind of gift.
So, you have just booked a job. Ask yourself: Is there cause to celebrate? Think of the casting director who chose you for the job. Are you filled with feeling when you consider that she recognized and rewarded your talent, however much you deserved it? In that case, fulfill the social contract and send her some roses. There is nothing innately dishonest about participating in social conventions, and it is always wise to honor an instinct to recognize another person’s role in your success.
Until next time,
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