Reciprocity is key in our communications


Reciprocity is an interesting concept, not just in the field of communications but in the sciences and in our lives itself.

Communication studies aside, reciprocity can be observed in Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which states that “to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. When a  billiard ball is hit, the ball will travel in a straight line and upon hitting another billiard ball, the billiard ball that was hit will move due to the force exerted on it by the first billiard ball. When a water droplet drops into a pool of water, the impact will cause ripples to be spread outwards due to the gravitational force of the falling water droplet. If we are to give a pendulum a push, the pendulum will swing forward and swing back when it has fully expensed its energy (coupled with the tension of the string). There are other numerous examples that show that this third law of motion is applicable in all aspects of interactions among non-living objects and even living beings (e.g. sports athletes may be pushed backwards if they were knocked by an opponent).

Besides the sciences, we can also see the effects of reciprocity in our daily lives, with some instances as shown below:

  • When a phone in our homes rings, it will be a matter of time before someone picks up the phone (usually not because the ring tone is piercing to the ears but because we know that if a phone rings, someone is looking for us)
  • Most companies have set up an automated email system which sends an automated response (usually stating the amount of time before a response will be given) to any individuals who have sent email enquiries (because the organisation understands the importance of not only reciprocity, but promptness in their responses as well)
  • When we wave/smile/nod our heads at someone, they will- more often than not- respond with the same (or at times different positive) gestures out of goodwill
  • When we tread water while swimming, the water automatically responds to the pressure exerted on it by our legs and keep us afloat (Imagine what happens when the water no longer responds to our efforts)
  • Fire-safety sprinklers have been programmed by technician to spray water when they sensed a drastic increase in temperature (It can be observed that humans have also integrated the importance of reciprocity in technology itself)
  • Boatmen often have the practice of communicating among themselves out at sea by switching on and off their torches in the night. When one boatman does that, the others will respond accordingly.
  • When we overwork, our bodies tend to experience fatigue and we feel tired. However, once we have maintained a good diet, have meals at the right time and have enough rest, our bodies will reciprocate by enabling us to feel better physically and emotionally again.

While this may sound philosophical, it seems true to me that almost everything in life has a reciprocal nature in them, including the technologies that we have invented.  If this is the case, how is it that in contemporary times, some of us do not respond to others as often as we should have?  Personally, I have experience this lack of reciprocity not in face-to-face interactions but rather “off-site” communications, especially SMS communication and emails. Is it because we are too busy to maintain our friendships due to our hectic pace of life? Is it because friendships are no longer prioritised by us? Is it because we expect others to take the initiative to contact us first? Is it because we feel that our friends come and go? Is it because we are more selective about our friends?

It is interesting to observe that technologies (such as IMs, SMSes, hand phones, emails and video conferencing ) are considered by many to act as virtual bridges to aid us in our communications. In the past, there’s only the telephone and face-to-face interactions. Now, there’s a drastic increase in communication devices to aid us in our communications. However, this increase has apparently not only failed to facilitate us in improving our relations with others but has instead become a (psychological) barriers that prevent us from communicating with others (with some justifying that since it’s easy to contact others now, why bother to respond to them now? After all, it’s probably nothing urgent).

However, reciprocity is important in communications. More importantly, promptness in our responses is vital in communications because it shows that we care. The importance of  the message sent by others is irrelevant. What is crucial is that we respond to others. It is human nature that we often develop a positive/favourable impression of someone who cares for our well-being and ask after us. However, it is important to ensure that our attempts to communicate have no hidden agenda. Approaching someone for a conversation or asking someone out for a meal because we need them to close a sale to meet our sales quota is inappropriate and even considered by some to be manipulative.  Making efforts to communicate with someone only to inform them to complete their tasks by the deadline(s) will also not be received well by others.

In a nutshell, reciprocating others’ communicating effort should be consistent, timely and sincere.

These reciprocal gestures should also be made purely out of goodwill.


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