Does the phrase "work both ways" mean the same as the adjective "reciprocal"?

For example:

The reciprocal relationship = the relationship works both ways

2 Answers 2


I would say that although both expressions have a similar meaning, they are far from interchangeable. As a native speaker and translator, I approach each instance of usage individually, and select the appropriate term for the context each time.

So you could say that "a relationship that works both ways" is a definition or description of a reciprocal relationship. However, in terms of usage, they are not interchangeable.


They aren't really the same.

Something that is reciprocal is done as a return to something that has already been done. Often this is by prior agreement (as in "a reciprocal arrangement"). You can also do something in anticipation of reciprocation. An example of a reciprocal arrangement would be if you cleaned your neighbour's windows and in return, they washed your car.

As an idiom, we tend to say that something "works both ways" to mean that something will only work as a whole if it is done by both parties. For example, a friendship - if you were a friend to somebody, but they didn't like you back, that isn't a friendship at all.

So the difference is that reciprocation is two deeds done in return, but something that "works both ways" is essentially one thing done by two persons. In fact another similar metaphor is to say that something is "a two-way street".

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