To Lend or Not to Lend to Friends and Kin: Awkwardness, Obfuscation, and Negative Reciprocity

Frederick F. Wherry, Kristin S. Seefeldt, Anthony S. Alvarez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Although family and friends can drain a household's finances by requesting personal loans, lenders have proven savvy in how they respond to such requests. Beyond identifying the importance of sincerity tests for curtailing the pressure to help others in one's social circle, the studies of negative social capital do not address why the pressure to lend varies according to the dramaturgical performance strategies of the benefactors. In other words, how do potential lenders manage to say no without saying no? Using interview evidence from clients at the Mission Asset Fund in California, we show how individuals engage in obfuscatory relational work, performing a self that evades the taboo of greedy callousness, while sometimes telling half-truths about not being able to help in the way borrowers would like. Unlike the concept of obfuscatory relational work, however, we focus on expected transfers that do not happen and on unreciprocated gifts that are disguised as loans. The lender and recipient are engaged in face-saving obfuscation; but in the first case, the lender presents a generous self that is emotionally close to the borrower; in the second, the lender helps the recipient of the gift maintain face by avoiding an awkward ask, pretending the "loan" is expected to be repaid. This paper outlines different strategies of obfuscation among adults trying to improve their financial lives and the contingencies at play as a ruse is abandoned in favor of a direct refusal to lend.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)753-775
Number of pages23
JournalSocial Forces
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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