It takes two to give


My mom demonstrates her joy at the wonderful Fondation Louis Vuitton, a building designed by Frank Gehry, during her visit with me in Paris in 2015.

My mom was supposed to come visit me this past week while I have been teaching in Paris. She was scheduled to arrive Wednesday morning and in a reprisal of our fabulous time together in 2015 (see picture above), we planned to pack our afternoons with art museums and our evenings with concerts. Then, a few days before she was due to leave, my mom fell down the stairs with the result that her foot broke. She got a walking boot and gamely was set to come anyway. However, the night before her flight, she went out for dinner. When she needed five minutes to get from the car to the table at a restaurant and then suffered hours of pain after her dinner jaunt, she realized that visiting Paris was not going to work. So my mom canceled.

In preparation for her visit, my mom and I had been discussing which concerts and which museums to do on which days for months. Of course, we procrastinated in making the decisions and buying tickets online. This procrastination paid off in that my mom had only pre-bought one pair of tickets before coming: tickets to the Picasso Museum for Saturday (yesterday). I printed these tickets out and then set to figuring out what to do with my mom’s, now extraneous, ticket. Since I hate wasting anything – time, food, tickets; I was determined to figure out someone to give the extra ticket to. I thought of asking a lovely woman I had met one morning having a croissant and coffee at the local Keyser’s Boulangerie. She had given me her number and I tried to text her but crashed and burned in dialing from my US cell phone on wifi to a French cell phone number (it probably didn’t help that I am not entirely fluent in reading numbers written in European-style – mistakes in for example 1 vs 7 or 4 vs 9 can add up in an overwhelming quantity of incorrect permutations).

I gave up on giving the ticket to someone I knew and set off for the Picasso Museum with my two tickets. My plan was to just simply gift one of the tickets to someone waiting outside. Paris is wonderful – no complaints – but the weather here recently has been less than ideal. Yesterday was no exception: a constant, chilling drizzle nearly all day and night long. After about a 50-minute walk to the Picasso Museum, I arrived in a fairly damp state. About 150 similarly damp people were standing outside in the courtyard in two lines. The line farther from the entrance simply was the overflow so that the first person in the far line eventually became the last person in the close line. I was afraid that this two-stage queue was to get in to the museum but it turned out it was the line to purchase tickets. There was no line for ticket-holders. Oh joy, oh happiness!

The guard waved me, with my ticket, to the entrance but, before I headed there, I took out my extra ticket. I walked toward the woman who was the first one standing in the far line. She looked to be on her own. I said in my bad French, “Do you want this ticket?” with what was meant to be a welcoming smile on my face. She looked at me blankly, took the ticket that I offered and proceeded to study it with an expression of joyless suspicion. She made me feel as if I was offering her an easy way to contract the bubonic plague. There simply was no connection. I wanted to give away my ticket to her but it was clear that she did not want to take it. As I realized this, I saw, from the corner of my eye, a smiling woman looking at me, I took the ticket back from the plague-fearing woman and turned my gaze to this smiling woman. I raised my eyebrows – enough with my bad French, let’s go directly to a universal mode of communication – and she smiled back and nodded. The guard was watching this whole interaction and saw our wordless offer-and-acceptance dance. The guard accordingly opened the line to let out the smiling woman and I handed her the ticket. It turned out that she was a Danish woman, living in Canada, and visiting France.

The guard took us to the entrance where we went through a bag security check. She offered me money for the ticket. I declined, saying that my mom couldn’t come due to a broken foot. She wished my mom well, we chatted pleasantly for a moment and then each went our own way into the museum. I was left with a great feeling. I loved that she could use the ticket, that it brought her joy. She enabled me to feel good by accepting the ticket. To give is to get. And to give requires someone to take. Her taking was an absolutely essential step in my giving. Neither of us could have accomplished what we did without the other.

The inability to give is not uncommon

Over the years I have experienced both sides of this giving-receiving vs trying-to-give-but-can’t coin. As an example of the latter, last fall, my spouse and I had tickets to see Hamilton with another couple. At the last minute, sickness felled two of the four of us, so that only one from the other couple, Deb, and I could go. Deb and I discussed it and neither of us wanted to get any money for the two extra tickets. We just wanted to give them away. Hamilton was, and remains, a hot ticket and we imagined someone’s happy surprise in being able to see the show. When we got to the theater, I went outside and started approaching people in downtown Chicago with, “Would you like free tickets to Hamilton?” All looked at me with complete suspicion, often laced with hostility. The one exception was one young African-American woman who was walking with her young son. She asked when the show was and finding out that it was in 30 minutes, regretfully said that the son had an engagement. She thanked me for the offer. I wished her well and gave up. A pleasant interaction with this woman was the best I was going to get from my failed attempt at giving.

Success at giving is memorable

On the happy side of the coin: In 1987, I was walking down Market Street in San Francisco with Gisèle. Gisèle is now my spouse, but in 1987, it was entirely outside of any reasonable possibility that we would ever be able to marry in our lifetimes seeing as we are both women. In fact, walking hand-in-hand was a big deal, highly dangerous in most places and tolerated in a few. San Francisco, particularly the Castro district, stood out as a place where same-sex couples were so common as to be no big deal. We were about to move to San Francisco and were staying at a hotel very near the oh-so-gay Castro St while hunting for an apartment.

Gisèle and I were walking arm in arm, smiling, laughing, and relishing the atmosphere. A man was walking towards us and we exchanged smiles. Then he stopped, turned around, and ran back to catch up to us. He said, “My boyfriend just stood me up and now I have these two tickets to Cabaret with Joel Grey. Do you want them?” We eagerly said yes. The three of us chatted for a moment and he let us know that it was our smiling at him – a minute piece of open-ness – that motivated him to offer us the tickets. This happened 30 years ago and I still remember it with a smile and with gratitude. On the other hand, I am hard pressed to remember the show, which I am fairly certain I enjoyed. The point is that a genuine human connection – even with a stranger whose name you never did or will know – is high on the memorable and meaningful scale. If the man that gave us the ticket is still alive (which is, sadly, unlikely given the scourge exacted by AIDS in the Castro), I would imagine that he too still remembers our shared moment.

It takes two to tango

Giving, helping, kindness, conversation, and teaching-learning are all social behaviors. They require two (or more) to tango. For one to give, another must accept. For one to help, another must be helped. A kind intention goes nowhere unless it is recognized and accepted by the beneficiary as such. The speaker and listener are both essential to a conversation. And as is evident to me whenever I “teach,” I only accomplish my task if students learn. To paraphrase the proverbial question regarding the sound made by a tree falling in the forest, a teacher in the forest cannot teach and is in fact not a teacher as long as she remains alone in that forest.


Thanks to Mahesh Sharma who first alerted me to this image. It fits my philosophy perfectly.

Are travelers more open?

I was telling my friend and colleague Xin about my experience at the Picasso Museum. Having had similar experiences, she suggested that travelers are more open to strangers. This fits fairly well with my own experiences. Gisèle and I were traveling when we received Cabaret tickets. The woman who gladly accepted the Picasso tickets was traveling. Now I do not know if the plague-fearing woman at the Picasso Museum was a traveler or not. But I did have the sense that most of the people who refused the Hamilton tickets that I offered were Chicagoans. It may not be coincidental that the one woman in Chicago who did not view me with hostility was African-American; was her venture into the city center an unusual occurrence, an in-city trip? Or not. I don’t know and never will.

How about rats?

Is there anything to this anecdote-fed hint that travelers are more open to accepting a gift than are residents? To put this in biological terms, is there a difference in receptivity during exploration versus exploitation?

The explore-exploit tension is the biological expression of should I stay or should I go? Both staying (exploiting) and going (exploring) have their respective advantages and disadvantages. In times of plenty, exploiting the plenty in place is favored and in times of scarcity, exploration is a useful strategy, at least so long as everyone does not decamp to the same place, an unlikely event. On the disadvantage side, predators are likely to eventually figure out where a group of long-term exploiters are whereas explorers risk exposure to predators without the benefit of familiar hiding places. Neither strategy is sure-fire and neither always gets the short end of the stick. Consequently, individual animals choose one or the other strategy at any one time, based on temperament and environmental conditions.

A biological framing of whether travelers allow gifting and residents put the kobosh on it is to ask whether one is more receptive to social advances during exploration than during periods of exploitation. We can imagine a nice teleological (adaptively explanatory) story that exploration is a time when one needs help from strangers because there are no familiars around from whom to receive help.

Of course this makes me think of rats, rats being my go-to place. One could imagine that rats in an exploring mode are more open to being helped than those in a exploiting mode. In the model that my laboratory designed and uses, a free rat will help a rat who is trapped in a plastic tube by opening the door to the tube. The trapped rats all leave the tube once the door is opened but it takes some rats longer than others. If the exploring-exploiting temperament influences receptivity to help, then one would predict that more explorative rats would be helped more and would come out of the tube quicker. Data are all there and so if some student wants to figure this out, then we will know.

Nonetheless and despite my love of rats, I suspect that the greatest progress on this question of Who is most likely to receive help? will be best tackled by studying humans. You won’t hear me say that often….

And by the way, get to the Picasso Museum before May 2, 2017 if you possibly can. The exhibit on Giacometti and Picasso is worth it alone. And then there is the permanent collection to double your pleasure. Just a few pictures to whet your appetite below.


Pablo Picasso’s Tete d’homme vue de trois quarts dos.1906-07. Rough translation is Three quarters view of man’s head from the back. This and a number of other works by both Picasso and Giacometti were drawn on newspaper, producing a striking effect. 


Alberto Giacometti’s Autoportrait. 1921.


Pablo Picasso’s Chat saisissant un oiseau. 1939. Rough translation: Cat catching a bird.  


Alberto Giacometti’s Paysage noir. 1952. Rough translation: Black landscape. Note that there are light square areas that are reflections from windows and are not part of the painting.


  1. I’m so sorry your mom broke her ankle Peggy – fortunately it wasn’t worse. I have a feeling your mom, as did mine, has a smile for all those who cross her path. Interesting post re travelers vs locals receptivity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right Betsy. On the way home to join my father (she had flown to go to my niece’s shower), my mom’s plane was delayed for hours. My mom made friends with a whole group who took turns wheeling her around to get her a latte and take her to the rest room. She had a good time during the delay…. Lemons and lemonade etc.


  2. Random acts of kindness are enduring in the mind!

    15 years ago I was post divorce and deeply depressed. One day whilst sitting in my (psychedelic painted) minivan waiting for my shift to start, a total stranger tapped on my window and handed me a package. He said he had been holding onto this for the right person to give it to. Inside was an ornament to hang inside the car on the rear-view mirror, a wacky looking contraption with springs and bright colours. I looked at him bemused and he insisted it was meant for me and he wanted nothing in return and then promptly walking away. That memory to this day is very sharp in my mind and really came at such a perfect moment.

    In reference to receptivity to receiving when traveling, I think often these moments of upheaval (like a divorce) resemble the traveling spirit, where we become untethered to one way in which we have become accustomed to live, and forced through circumstance to become open to new possibilities.

    In any case, great blog post, thank you!

    Cheers Jess

    I came here after sitting your Coursera neuro course in prep for this trimester’s Biopsychology class at my university here in Australia. I really enjoyed your delivery of the material and your delight during lab work when examining the brain. Very catchy enthusiasm!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I will accept any free ticket. Now all I need is the airfare. I will accept that too. I am from the species Homo Opportunist.
    I think the Giacometti looks better with the reflections from windows. Carpe Diem

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I love “listening” to you — in Understanding the Brain, and here. I have had a lot of experience with free gifts (of information) when traveling. In Chicago several years ago our experience was that if we got out a map, someone would come up and offer to help us get where we were going. When our plan to take the el back to our hotel on a Sunday was stymied (the el didn’t run on Sunday), a man saw us looking at the signs by the el stop, and came over to tell that if we went back toward the lake two blocks, and waited for a certain bus, it would take us very near our hotel.

    In Philadelphia I had an experience of a woman asking me which conveyance I wanted (underground — there are a variety, I learned!). She came up to me to talk, and told me I was on the wrong level (needed to go down one more level). I don’t know how she knew what I wanted, but her willingness to help me made my life easier that day!

    I have asked people for help finding my way many times in many places, and have always been helped.

    We are so aware of scams of various kinds, these days…. I’m not surprised that people are suspicious of gifts from strangers.

    In my own neighborhood, I make a point of making eye contact and giving a genuine smile. I usually get one back, but not always. I understand your point about giving those smiles being a two-way street.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I stated on the NYC subway at 7 and alway walked like I knew where I was going, even if I didn’t. I can spot a new person and helping them makes my day.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. One very fond memory. I worked, as a volunteer at the Am, Mus of Natural History (AMNH). Waiting for the train a women asked me if this was the station for AMNH, I said, yes follow me. We had a very nice chat, she being from London, and when we got to the Museum she bought me lunch. A lot of Dopamine, positive reinforcement that day!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m very sorry for your mum’s injury. I wish her well in recovery. I would like to make a book suggestion. It’s a wonderful blend of experience and neuroscience: Move into Life (Anat Baniel). Her father broke his leg in his fifties and had to be in cast for a few months. Using her work, when they removed the cast, there was no atrophy. (Otherwise, her work is mostly with special needs children).

    On the question of: why some people don’t respond to kindness, I found very helpful explanation in terms of autonomic nervous system by Stephen Porges, PhD. Interview: Don’t talk to me now, I’m scanning for danger.

    I like the quote: Kindness is free. It really is. 🙂


  8. There’s an expression in Russian that roughly translates to “you can only find free cheese in a mouse trap”. Meaning that: when someone gives you anything for free, it’s probably a scam.

    Despite being raised by Russian parents, I’m definitely more of an explorer on the exploring-exploiting spectrum. I’m very friendly with strangers, and have made a lot of friends that way. (And have also had my phone stolen that way).

    I think this ticket scenario could be fun if you found a total stranger who wanted to go with you. The Couchsurfing app is good for this- travelers use it to hang out with strangers, and someone would definitely go to a museum with you for free.

    I think exploring an art museum with a total stranger would be a lot of fun. What do you think?


    • Dear Naduplants,

      Love your comment. To respond in short, I will go to an art museum with you anytime!!! We won’t be total strangers for long (we already aren’t).

      The Russian proverb suggests a terribly cynical view and I try to not be cynical. This one is easy. I try to find the intrinsic value in things. I don’t like the idea that something is desirable because it is cheap. For example, when there are submarine sandwiches served for free at work (for student talks or some meeting), I bring my own lunch instead. Subs have no value to me. I wouldn’t want to eat them if they were free or if they cost $20. So the point is that a gift is worth what it is worth to me.

      Value is not simply in the thing. For example, when a young child gives me one of her crackerjacks, that gift’s value is not in the crackerjack but in the gifting. A small child reaching out their hand to hold yours is a gift of enormous value.

      My only difference with you, dear Naduplants, is that I would never use Couchsurfing – just would never think of it. I suspect I show my age when I say that I like my stranger encounters to happen organically. Even if that means striking out on a few tries.

      Finally, your comment reminds me of my mom. After she broke her foot, she was flying back to Florida. The DC airport was hammered in “weather” and flights were delayed. She was in a wheelchair. Numerous people inquired if she needed anything. To one young woman,my mom said, “I would love a decaf soy latte.” So off my mom went with a stranger to buy a latte. Trips to the bathroom, more lattes, and chatting ensued. A week later, the young woman and her family visited my mom and dad in Florida….. [Note: this is one of many mom-makes-friends-with-total-strangers stories].

      Let me know when you’re in Chicago and we’ll “grab a museum.”



  9. Love the airport story Peggy. Wish your mom and mine could’ve been friends they sound so similar. Mine’s been gone 7 years – what a character she was….


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s