To Share Or Not To Share

Mar 10, 2017

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who happily share their food, and those who’d rather stab your outstretched hand with a carving fork.

Both are completely understandable. On one hand, sampling each other’s meals can be a fun way to taste things you’d might not otherwise try. On the other likely-to-be-impaled hand, why should you have to split your birthday slice of cheesecake six ways?

  

An informal and unscientific poll I conducted on social media revealed that people can be pretty particular about whom they’ll permit to pick from their plates.

Most responses were pleasant and accommodating. Chef Cassie Parsons replied eloquently, “Sharing food is a life-line in connection; it’s a must for me…sharing flavors is innate.” Many gave more bite-sized answers: “Sure,” “Of course,” and “Absolutely.”

But then the opposition spoke. “Absolutely NOT.” The reasons they gave were rational. “I'm not going to cut off a piece of my steak to give you because you ordered the chicken,” said one friend. Another expressed health concerns about joining a group of diners with unknown hand-washing habits. A third chimed in that her brother routinely faked sneezing over a dish he didn’t want to divide up among others.

As it turns out, there’s interesting science behind all of this. Sharing food facilitates the release of oxytocin, the hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter associated with bonding. According to researchers at the Royal Society, “Food sharing between unrelated individuals outside the mating context is rare but has been reported for humans, vampire bats, chimpanzees and bonobos.”

The scientists studied food and its role in fighting, sharing, cooperation, monopolization, and other behaviors among both related and non-related chimpanzees. The researchers documented an increase of oxytocin in the animals who shared food. Also among their findings: “Two-thirds of all donors were dominant over the receivers. Among non-kin food-sharing partners, three-quarters of all donors were dominant.” It seems that those of us who want to lead the pack would be wise to throw a hunk of meat to the others now and then.

(As a side note, the occurrence of non-kin “possible meat-for-sex exchange” was low, less than ten percent, which may ease the worries of anyone embarking on an upcoming dinner date with a new partner.)

Sharing food is not so simple. Reciprocity is a factor that may connect to something called “empathic emotion regulation” or EER, and its role in evolution. If this sort of thing whets your appetite, read more here in articles from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

The famed food writer MFK Fisher said, “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” She has a point. Food is so much more than a basket of fries or a crock of fondue. It’s literally life-giving, and sometimes hard to come by. We should share it – abundantly, joyfully, thoughtfully – but ultimately on our own terms, however we define them.

Now pass me your plate. There’s something here I really want you to taste.

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