Illustration by Anna Emilia
I’m so glad that this etiquette column has finally come to life. Not only because I enjoy tackling issues like this and hearing all sides of the spectrum (I loved reading your comments on last week’s post), but I really love researching what’s been done/said/suggested in the past. I’m working on a few etiquette posts at the same time right now (social media/email, dinner parties, weddings), and it’s fun to see how social conventions have changed, become more open-minded and accepting of a wide range of styles, preferences and cultural differences. So before I dive into those bigger topics (those first two are gonna be doozies), I wanted to handle something that I’ve been hearing about a lot behind the scenes: How to Ask for a Favor.
Asking for a favor seems like a simple topic. You pick someone, ask them and then they say “yes” or “no,” right? Sort of. There’s an art to asking someone to help you with something, and there are definitely ways to respond and react that can make the experience easier and more positive for both people. In an age where online connections and bonds are made so quickly, I’ve noticed that people feel comfortable assuming/asking/demanding a lot of the people they know online. So this topic feels like a good place to get us going today. As always, I really want to know what YOU think about this. Have you been in an uncomfortable favor situation? If so, what would have made it different or gone more smoothly? Or are you extremely adept and successful at asking for favors? If so, we’d love to hear your secrets. The goal of today’s column will be to understand better ways to ask for, receive and be appreciative of help. A little kindness and thought goes a long way toward maintaining close friendships in both life and work, so I hope these ideas — and your comments — will help all of us keep those bonds tight. xo, grace
In tackling this topic, I thought it would be best to break it down into a few sections: Basic Do’s and Don’ts, Considering the Task and Recipient, Being a Gracious Helper/Help-ee and Maintaining Boundaries and Friendships.
*But before I start, I want to preface this entire article by saying this*: I believe that true, close relationships (family, friend, romantic) don’t always follow rules or guidelines. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball, and you may have to ask for a lot of favors for a while. As long as you do so with kindness, understanding and appreciation, it should not be a tit-for-tat situation. Real friends and family understand that rough patches happen and that you’ll both be there for each other regardless. So while I’ll be discussing the idea of “you owe me” in this post, I want to stress that I think that truly close bonds sometimes fall outside of rules and guidelines. Also, all of these guidelines are meant for an ideal situation where you have time to think about things ahead of time. Sometimes you need a favor fast and don’t have time to plan. If that’s the case, just remember #1 below.
1. Basic Do’s and Don’ts
– The simplest thing to remember when asking for a favor is this: Always say please and thank you. If you’re asking someone to do you a favor, starting with an appreciative tone always helps.
– Be prepared to graciously accept rejection. You never know what someone else’s life, schedule or comfort level is when approached for a favor. Their inability to help may have nothing to do with you, so try not to take things personally. A polite response to a “no” goes a long way.
– Do not guilt someone into doing something. Making someone feel guilted into helping you starts things off on the wrong foot. You won’t get their best help, and it will leave a sour taste in their mouth about helping you. An honest appeal and explanation of your situation is best.
– Be direct: Nothing’s more awkward than having a long meeting with someone where you can tell they want to ask you something the whole time. Start with your request from the get-go and be clear and simple about what you need and why you need it.
– Do as much as you can before asking for help. Part of showing someone that you’ve tried and really do need help is demonstrating that you’ve attempted to ease their job a bit. If you’re asking someone to give you advice on a professional matter, show them that you’ve already read books/blogs/posts that cover that area. It will help them focus in on how best they can help and show your dedication to helping yourself at the same time. Another example: If you’re asking friends to help you move, try to take care of buying boxes or tidying up first (if you can) so their work of packing and carrying is a little easier.
– Don’t say “You owe me.” I’ll go into this more below, but I think the worst thing you can do when accepting a request to help someone is to make them feel beholden to you. You should only accept an offer to help if you truly want to. People shouldn’t guilt you into helping, and in return, you shouldn’t guilt them into helping you later or feeling bad for asking for help.
– Social media update: I’m tackling this in full next time, but I wanted to add that it’s always polite to ask kindly if you want people to Tweet, Follow, Friend or vote for you in some sort of online platform. I see a lot of “VOTE FOR ME!” emails and messages these days, and it would be awesome to have that phrased as, “I’m excited to be a part of [contest name]! If you’re a supporter of [business name], I would greatly appreciate your vote here. Thanks so much for your time.”
2. Considering the Task and Recipient
This is an area where I think most of the awkwardness with favors could be avoided, simply because it’s important to consider WHAT you’re asking and WHOM would be the best person to ask.
When considering the task, take a minute to think about it from someone else’s perspective. How much time, work, effort, skill, stress and money will be put into it? Write these things down and look at it as though you were receiving this request. Are there ways you can make this easier for someone before asking? Tasks you can do yourself first? If so, cross those off and handle them on your own before asking. I can’t stress enough how much it helps to hear someone say, “I’ve already done X, Y and Z, but I’m stuck on this last part. Could you please help me?”
Considering the recipient (who would be best suited to help) of your request is important, too. Primarily because it helps you find the most likely path to success. A skill or task that may seem everyday and easy to you may not be easy to everyone. For example: A lot of my friends recently had children. When visiting newborns, I was terrified of how tiny and fragile the babies seemed. I was too scared to touch them and was so worried I would do something wrong. Now, I know a lot of parents feel the same way, but if you were asking someone to babysit a newborn, it would be helpful to choose someone close to you who is excited by the prospect of caring for a small baby (like so many of my other visiting friends were). I, for example, would be better suited to cooking dinner, cleaning the house and just about any other task the family could need. Does that mean I wouldn’t help a friend in need? Of course not, but when you’re thinking of asking someone to help, consider which tasks would be best suited for them.
3. Being a Gracious Helper/Help-ee
If you’re the person being asked to help someone, I think part of the two-way relationship implies that you’ll only accept if you can truly help, and that you won’t try to hold it against someone. While a lot of people feel that a favor in itself implies a tit-for-tat situation (“You owe ME now”), I don’t agree. It’s not the favor that implies that, it’s the friendship. If you’re friends with someone, or in a relationship with someone, you’re part of a mutual understanding that you care about each other and will do what you can — within reason — to help that person when they’re in need. Does it mean you have to give them $20,000 in a pinch? No. But does it imply that a little help now and then is understandable? I think so. So part of being a gracious helper is to avoid scorekeeping. If you truly feel like you’re always helping someone and they’re never helping you, it’s a good time to have a more serious discussion about the friendship.
As the helper, it’s also important to be honest and upfront. If you’re able to help someone with one part of a favor but not the other, just tell them. You can say, “I’m afraid I can’t drive you to the airport because I have plans that day, but I’d be more than happy to pick you up when you return. Could you find someone to handle the first leg of your trip?” If accepting the full favor request is putting you out or will make you angry or resentful, it’s best to be honest about what you can and can’t do. Chances are, your friend would rather have some of your help and all of your friendship, rather than all of your help and all of your resentment.
As the person being helped, it’s important to thank someone for their time and effort. This “thank you” can come in many forms. In the most basic form, it should be delivered as a heartfelt “thank you” before, after and during the help. I’ve helped countless friends move over the years, and it always makes the load a little lighter to hear a “Hey guys, thanks again for helping me today,” while you’re lifting heavy boxes.
For particularly heavy or elaborate favors, I think an extra thank you goes a long way. My parents have a very kind neighbor who watches their dog when they’re out of town. She refuses to accept money for her help, but my parents always bake her some sort of homemade treat (a favorite of hers) as a thank you. Whether you write a card, send flowers or bake something nice, a little extra thank you (especially for longer tasks) really shows someone you care. If buying/making something isn’t in the budget, a hand-written thank you note does the trick, too. It shows you took the time to sit down and say how much you appreciate their help. (A phone call is great, too. For some reason, that always feels a step above an email to me.)
4. Maintaining Boundaries and Friendships
One of the best ways to maintain that relationship — and improve it — is to respect someone’s professional and personal boundaries. Just last week, I was talking to a friend who was dismayed over the recent trend of “internet acquaintances” asking her to meet for coffee so they could “pick her brain.” I think this is a pretty common occurrence these days, and while sometimes flattering and a sign of great inter-connectivity, it’s further proof that someone’s boundaries should be respected when asking for a favor.
Here’s one way to look at it:
– Is this person a good, close friend? If so, you’re probably ok to ask them for detailed professional advice or help. I’ve done this for friends without feeling taken advantage of and have felt honored to received the same from friends.
– Is this person NOT a good, close friend? Think twice about what you’re asking and whether this is a service they typically make their living doing. I’ve heard from too many freelancers to count that their professional consulting rates are frequently ignored and someone just asks for advice in exchange for a free cup of coffee or a meal. If this person isn’t someone you truly know well and consider a close friend, asking them for professional advice (when that’s a service they make their living from) in exchange for a meal is not appropriate. If their full project price isn’t in your budget range, consider asking for a one-time consultation rate. I’ve done this with lawyers, graphic designers and even a stylist before. My budget didn’t allow for their full rates, so I asked if that was an option, and I was happy to hear that all of them had no problem giving me overview advice for a small fee.
In either of these situations, offering someone “an out” is a great solution to anyone feeling uncomfortable about a boundary being crossed. A simple, “I’m stuck with how best to redesign my business cards. You’re a great graphic designer, and I wondered if you’d be open to giving me your input on what I should do. If not, I totally understand, but I just wanted to check first,” does the trick. Sometimes favors are tricky (asking someone for a job at their company, asking someone to borrow money, etc.), and the easiest way to handle them with grace is to politely give someone a way to exit the situation comfortably. All they have to do is say, “You know, I’m sorry, that does make me feel a little uncomfortable,” and you have a chance to say, “I’m sorry,” and perhaps find someone more appropriate to ask for help.
5. Final Thoughts
One of the best parts of any close relationship is knowing that someone has your back. They’ll be there for you when you really need them, and you’ll do the same. But barring major life stress/changes when you’ll need more regular help and favors (divorce, children, moving, loss of a job, etc.), it’s good to remember that no relationship should be taken for granted, whether it’s a new acquaintance or an old friend. So keeping some of these ideas in mind when asking for favors will help you maintain and improve relationships over time and ensure that you’re able to ask for help, receive help and give it in a way that shows how much you appreciate and care for the people in your life.