A recent email
So Hannah emailed me recently, and she said,
“Me and another person were getting a lift from a third person to go to an event. The other person had mentioned he has gas money, so I thought, “Gas money? That’s a good idea!” But then I was like, “Okay, how much is appropriate?” I didn’t want to give them too little and be kind of insulting, and I didn’t want to give them too much and have it be weird. So I looked up how far it is and how much gas costs, and then I was like, “Okay, this is too complicated, I’ll just give them five bucks.” Then the other person gave them 20 and I immediately felt I’d done it wrong, but the person driving seemed surprised that he’d given them 20 and they didn’t seem surprised that I had given them five: “Which one of us made the social faux pas?” But then afterwards, I was thinking what I did was 100% reasonable and I don’t need to feel like I’ve done something wrong because someone else did something different from me. What do you think?”
Things to consider
Okay Hannah. First of all, I love your self reflection at the end. You’re absolutely right, just because you did something different from another person doesn’t mean that you did anything wrong. And there are a number of ways to respond that are completely socially appropriate in any given situation.
As to your question about the gas money: I’m not going to be able to give you a hard and fast number because it’s going to be different depending on the cost of gas at the time, how far you’re going, all sorts of things. What I’d like to do is talk about four different considerations that can help you make a good decision.
Alright, so the first consideration I want to bring up is that you’re all adults in this situation. If you’re giving a ride to a kid, generally there’s little or no expectation that the kid will give you anything for that, or their parents as the case may be, especially if it’s a one time deal. However, if it’s a frequent carpool, then the parents might make some sort of a trade between them.
The second consideration is that this is a relatively local drive, as opposed to a long distance car trip. When you’re driving in town, or fairly locally, there’s less of an expectation that there’s going to be some sort of a remuneration for it.
When it’s a long distance road trip, or something to another city (to another state especially), there’s more of an expectation, a very high expectation, that you will have some sort of remuneration. It could be paying for gas, trading off who pays for gas, some sort of trade, and you can work that out between the people involved in any number of ways.
By the way, this is why often passengers on long distance trips will try to chat and sort of entertain the driver along the way. They’re often trying to make up for the driver doing the work of driving by keeping them entertained. Not all drivers appreciate that, but that is often where the impulse is coming from.
A third consideration is that this is a rare event, as opposed to a frequent or regular thing. When it’s a one-off special event, something that’s not very often, there’s less of an expectation of gas money. When it’s a frequent or regular occurrence, there is more of an expectation of some sort of remuneration. That could be gas money, it could be any number of other different things.
The fourth consideration is what the nature of the relationship between you and the person driving is. The closer the relationship, the less of an expectation of payment or remuneration. I’ll get to the payment in a minute, but the more distant the relationship, the more of an expectation that you will get something back from it.
It sounds like in this situation it’s probably a colleague or a more distant friend, there’s probably a higher expectation that you would give some sort of gas money. If it was a close family member or a close friend, there’s less of an expectation.
A big consideration
Alright, so those are four things to consider when you’re trying to decide if you need to give money, and whether it should be a small amount or a larger amount. Now, I do want to bring up one big consideration in terms of how much to give when your goal is to keep a good relationship with the other person: It can be a little bit tricky because there’s this sort of unspoken tension between, “I’m giving you money but I’m not actually paying you for something.”
When there isn’t that kind of relationship dynamic, when it’s straight up payment for service, like you’re hiring someone on Uber or whatever, then there isn’t that tension. It’s understood from the get-go that you are paying for them to give you a ride somewhere. So talking about money in the case of a paid service is very comparatively easy for most people. It’s just “here’s the fee, here’s how much it costs.” But when it’s a relationship, it’s more tricky.
If you give too much it can feel like you’re paying them for something. So if you’re trying to keep a good relationship with a person: err on the side of giving a little bit less. That might seem counterintuitive, like you want to butter them up by giving more, or really show your appreciation by giving them more, or show them how much it means to you to have them as a friend by giving more, but the more you give, the more it turns into what can feel like a paid interaction. A transaction as opposed to a relationship. That might be why the driver in this situation got the $20 and felt uncomfortable about that, but they didn’t feel uncomfortable about you giving five.
By the way, this is also why some people will say, when they’re giving a ride to a friend, “Sit in the front, I’m not a chauffeur.” Because when you sit in the back, it feels more like a service they’re providing. Like they’re doing something for you as a service, not as a friend.
Okay, so giving a little bit less as a default, or erring on the side of a little bit less, keeps it more in the realm of relationships. One other thing that can keep it more in the realm of relationships is to try and make it feel casual. So you can give them some money sort of casually, not making a big deal out of it.
My biggest tip is to keep it in multiples of five. When you… and you kind of did this by default when you were trying to consider how much gas cost right now, how far it is and try to calculate how much expense it will actually cost the driver. That’s lovely to do, and it might give you a good way to get an idea of approximately how much… but then whatever number you come up with: round it into fives, and again round down a little bit.
When you give a multiple of five, it feels more casual to most people. When you give something else like six or four, it feels a little bit more calculated. When you actually add cents to that, like $6.19, it feels like you’re being very exact, very calculating, and that takes it away from feeling casual for most people.
Alright. So I hope that those considerations help you to decide whether you need to give money, how much to give, and ways to make it feel a little bit casual. Just keep in mind as you’re doing this: there aren’t hard and fast rules in most social situations, and definitely not in this one, as to exactly how much to give. So make it your best shot, and try not to worry too much about getting it exactly right because the other person can forgive a lot when it’s kept casual, when it’s kept low-key, when it feels more like a relationship than a paid service.