Some of our social customs are so familiar that we don't realise how weird they are.

Sponsorship is one of them.

Here are two things a person might say, one of which is "normal", while the other is bordering on the offensive:

  • Hi, I'm raising money for my favourite charity by ascending Mount Everest blindfolded on a space hopper. Would you like to contribute?
  • Hi, I'm raising money for my favourite charity. Would you like to contribute?

What goes through our minds when we gladly give money in the first case, but feel very awkward in the second?

Generally, we would think that it is pretty rude to interfere with someone else's charitable giving. By all means tell me about your favourite charity, but leave it up to me to decide how much money I give (if I give anything at all).

But it's okay to do impolite things under certain circumstances. For example, it's generally considered to be a palpable solecism to knock on someone's door at 3am. But if your house is on fire and you need to use that person's phone, normal conventions are set aside.

But what is it about me performing some impressive feat that makes it acceptable for me to interfere with your charitable giving? On the surface, me hopping up Everest would appear to have no connection with you giving money to charity. But somehow my use of a space hopper could lead you to donate to a charity of my choice. Why?

Maybe part of the answer is that it bestows a certain amount of honour on the person being asked. Please sir, you know that if I had £10,000 to give to my favourite charity, I would give it myself. But I don't have that sort of money—and to prove that to you, I will do something that a normal person would never do for less that £10,000. I only ask that worthy benefactors such as your fine self take note of my sincerity, and out of pity supply me with just a small amount of what I lack in terms of money, so that my efforts can be translated into financial benefit for my favourite charity.

Is that the answer? Do we really have such elaborate social conventions in our enlightened age?