Perfunctory Offers

by James Somers, October 12, 2010

What do you do when you want the last piece of bread? Do you just take it? Or do you offer it to the table?

You offer it. Everybody knows the score: they know that you want the last piece, and that you’re only offering it to everyone else to be polite. So they’re going to decline, and you’re going to end up with the bread.

Why not be more direct? Because then you’d be skipping a ritual that gives everyone a chance to demonstrate how cooperative they are. Rituals like that are important.

Of course, making the offer opens you up to someone accepting it. That’s the price you pay for coming off as polite and cooperative; what you’ve done, effectively, is to wager the bread to earn a bit of social credit.

Nine times out of ten you’ll win—you’ll look good and keep your baguette—but occasionally you’ll lose the bread. You should be prepared for that.

The odds of pulling off a successful perfunctory offer are usually worse than in this bread situation. The reason is that the bread situation happens so often, and is so well-understood, that people rarely deviate from the script: offer, refuse, eat. Whereas in other cases—like when you offer a friend a ride but don’t want him to accept—the game isn’t so clear; your friend might suspect that your offer is just for show, but he can’t be sure. And free rides are attractive. So he’s more likely to accept.

The good news is that you get paid for taking on this extra risk. Offering your friend a ride is a bigger deal than offering your last piece of bread to the table, which means you stand to earn more social credit.

The stakes are higher for the other guy, too. He also earns points by turning down your empty offers; we saw that in the bread situation. It’s because turning down an empty offer (a) lets you off the hook, which is a nice and cooperative move for him to make, and (b) demonstrates his ability to detect empty offers in the first place, which feeds his reputation as a skilled coordinator.

That, then, is the arithmetic of perfunctory offers: you balance the cost of giving up some X against the points you’d earn for seeming generous, while he weighs the value of receiving X against the points he’d earn for skillfully detecting—and then abiding—your true intentions.