By Julia Furmanek

We’ve all seen it before, the classic end-of-the-night move: you’re out with the gang when one of them decides to interrupt a lively discussion with math:

“So… the pizza was $15.50, you had two slices so… do you think you could Venmo me like $2.75?” Good old Venmo, there to keep things equitable, anywhere, anytime. But at what cost? 

Sure, Venmo may be convenient — there is great efficiency in needing an app to pay anyone quickly. But that’s the real problem: Venmo culture is making friendships transactional. 

Traditionally, we form bonds with one another using a system of reciprocity, trusting that others will treat us as we have them. In antiquity, this meant that if you offered hospitality to a stranger, you could trust that they would offer a favor in return.

Over a period of time, reciprocal relationships grow into solid bonds: when one establishes a history of positive, reciprocal exchanges with an individual, they can feel confident that their kindness will only be met with more kindness. 

Of course, this looks different today than it would have a couple centuries ago, but the principle remains the same. You might pay for a friend’s coffee with the understanding that they cover you next time or take turns making dinner with your roommates.

Under a system of reciprocity, performing small acts of kindness becomes intuitive with the understanding that you can trust your friends to return the favor.

Venmo, unfortunately, interrupts this dynamic. When every guest at the party can offer exact change by way of an app alone, friendly gestures become transactional — everyone pays for their “portion” on the spot, eliminating the need to reciprocate later. 

Consequently, the culture of Venmo phases out the desire to maintain long-term connections that any system of reciprocity relies on. With quick digital transactions, the score is “settled” on site. 

But this arrangement lacks the forward-reaching orientation that we see with reciprocity — when you expect your friend to pay for dinner next time, you assume that there will be a next time. 

Of course, we can’t cover everyone’s bill all of the time, so Venmo proves to be an indispensable tool for some. But just because it’s possible to split every check down to the exact penny now, doesn’t mean this is the only way to be equal contributors in a relationship.

Trusting that your friend will reciprocate in the future, instead of making sure you’re repaid in an instant, could be a more meaningful way of maintaining equity.