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it is rude to be openly grateful for the receipt of material goods or services. Among the Semai of central Malaya, for example, no one ever expresses gratitude for the meat that a hunter gives away in exactly equal portions to his companions. Robert Dentan, who has lived with the Semai, found that to say thank you was very rude because it suggested either that you were calculating the size of the piece of meat you had been given, or that you were surprised by the success and generosity of the hunter.

One might also say that it is rude to express gratitude when generalized reciprocity is the distributive norm because under such circumstances giving things away to others is a social obligation, not an act of kindness.

Whereas generalized reciprocity occurs to some extent in all societies (it occurs among friends and family members in our own society, for instance), it constitutes the very essence of economic life among hunter-gatherers, where it is most frequently found. Hunting and gathering peoples are famed for their extensive food-sharing. Individuals constantly give food to others and receive food in return. When a man returns to camp with an animal that he has killed, he will divide it into portions and then give these away, typically first to members of his family and then to other members of the band. Similarly, women constantly give away portions of food they have gathered. When a hunter gives meat to others he expects only that he will probably be repaid in some way at some time. The hunter may give to others time after time without any repayment taking place and without any mention being made of this fact. He understands that the chances are excellent that his acts will eventually be reciprocated. A failure to reciprocate only becomes a cause for concern and conflict when it appears that one person is “freeloading” off another.

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