OPINION: Venmo and the value of reciprocity

Scott Rainey

You have probably heard that our phones have taken over our lives more times than you would like. To our parents, smartphones are simply agents of distraction, but to us, they are a necessary tool for living effectively while at school and at work.

Apps like Uber, Venmo, Lyft, Gmail, Slack and GroupMe allow us to interact in a way you never have before. These apps help us navigate through the 21st century seamlessly.

Venmo is widely used by people our age. It’s currently the second most downloaded finance app in the iTunes App Store behind Cash App.

It’s a wonderful app. It helps roommates pay each other for utilities, it helps friends split Ubers and it helps people pay others back for just about anything.

If used too freely, it has the potential to take away one important part of friendships and relationships: reciprocity. Strong friendships develop through mutual trust, and the way to build trust is through debts and favors.

If you go into debt to someone by asking them for something, and then you reciprocate, they will appreciate it. If you just send them the exact dollar amount for their action, yes, they will be happy they got their money back, but a bond has not been made.

This makes the transaction more businesslike and less personal.

This may create anxiety for people who have done something for other people who decided not to reciprocate, which is perfectly understandable. By making a clear deal with the person before you do them a favor, you sidestep this issue.

Many people say you should give for giving’s sake, but people tend to be skeptical of getting stuff for free (aside from college T-shirts). If you give to people without asking for anything in return, they will feel like you’re imposing a debt on them without their permission.

However, if they don’t return the favor after you have made a deal, then you know they may not be someone you can trust, which gives you a better understanding about how to operate around them. Venmo doesn’t give you this.

This is not to say you shouldn’t use Venmo. You absolutely should. It makes money transactions 10 times easier.

However, if you use Venmo to split bar tabs and restaurant bills — the pizza and beer emojis are the two most common emojis used in the Venmo social feed — you may be doing a disservice to the relationship you have with your friends.

Buying coffee, lunch or drinks for someone in exchange for a favor they did for you means you care about them more than whatever it costs to pay them back. You also made plans to see that person again. These gestures then grow into bigger forms of mutual respect and trust between you and your friends.

Eventually, you won’t have to think twice about doing larger favors like helping them move into their new place. You get to spend time with them lifting heavy boxes and decorating, and they’ll give you an entire pizza for all your hard work.

Scott Rainey is a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].