Modern Etiquette: Asking for a Favor

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.

  1. Bob says:

    I’ve recently become friends with a couple guys I met at a bar. We’ve hung out a handful of times at a bar and then a couple times outside of the bar. One of these guys recently asked the both of us to do a pretty heavy favor to help his parents build a deck out at their cabin. And saying “asked” is being rather kind. He actually, out of the blue, said “my parents are old and they are going to need your help next weekend.”

    I found this to be quite rude considering I’ve only known the guy a couple of months.

    Generaly how long should you have known a person before asking such a demanding favor of them?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      You have every right to pass on this request. If you don’t set boundaries now, you definitely can’t expect him to understand that that’s asking too much. So I’d speak up now.


  2. Marcus says:

    Hi, thank you for this article.

    I have a precarious situation, where I must ask my cousin for a job.

    My cousin is 3 years older than I, we grew up together but have not really spoken in 10 years. He is now very wealthy.

    His company specializes in internet marketing, something I really want to learn. I need to call him and ask if he would let me intern for free, hopefully leading towards paid employment.

    I have no experience in this field.

    There has always been a bit of tension between this cousin and I. I have had favors rejected in the past (over 10 years ago). However I have had medium size favors granted over the years and he has always been there when I NEEDED him.

    It is disconcerting to be asking someone far more powerful than yourself for a favor (even if they are family). I want him to feel comfortable with saying “No”. But I really want him to say yes.

    What is the best way to go about this request?

    Thank you for the reply.

    Kind Regards,


    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I understand how you feel, but I think asking him in a straight forward way as you just explained here is totally fine. It sounds as if he’s said “No” to requests before, so I think as long as you don’t add any guilt to the situation and just ask in a straight-forward way, you should be fine. I hope it works out!


  3. Jenae says:

    If someone did you a favor once and you asked their price (photography) and they don’t charge you but a year or two later ask you to call a place for them and set up their account and personal info because their account expires and you barely know them, can you say no? It makes me uncomfortable to keep helping them. They asked me a year ago and I did it and now when it expires, they keep having me call because they moved to another country and it is long distance. It seems annoying because you can purchase a prepaid long distance card for stuff like that. I said no this time because I feel used and I am busy and have a lot of places to call for myself that I haven’t been getting done.

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      Yes. You have the right to never enter into a situation that makes you uncomfortable, period.


  4. Vanessa says:

    When it comes to family.. what is consider an appropriate favor and what isn’t? My brother and sister-in-law constantly ask my boyfriend for favors because he has a trailer and his handing, moving things and cutting trees. However, when I asked them for a favor to pick up my daughter after school for a week they flat out said no since they didn’t want to disturbed their daughter’s nap time, even though she doesn’t work. Which I think is a selfish excuse for not reciprocating. What are your thoughts with family and favors?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      First thing’s first: your boyfriend (and you) shouldn’t follow through on any favors that aren’t convenient for you (or an emergency for them). If you continue to do favors for them and they won’t help you out in any other way, that will lead to resentment. So if this is truly a one-sided situation, you should end it now. You can simply explain that you feel as though they’re taking advantage of your boyfriend’s professional skills and services and that beyond a certain amount (maybe once a month?) or borrowing, you won’t be able to continue. They should respect and understand those boundaries, period.

      I don’t know your sister-in-law’s situation, but a lot of moms have very big rules about not disturbing young children’s nap schedules. These parents are most likely going without a lot of sleep (and coming off years of very little sleep) if they have a young child who is still on a nap schedule. So they MAY be happy to reciprocate with other favors, but not one that interrupts sleep schedules (and if your brother is at work and she’s home with her daughter, she can’t leave her alone to pick up your daughter).

      If they are unwilling to help with OTHER things that do work for their schedule then yes, you have a reason to be upset. But if something doesn’t work for their schedule and they can’t make it work but they still help out with other things, I don’t think it’s worth being upset over.


  5. Margaret says:

    I followed all the appropriate considerations mentioned above. The request was to an old colleague and friend from our early real estate career. We worked for the same real estate company in our 20’s. He met my sister then and we used to go skiing when we worked together! He also sold my condo 8 yrs. ago and was compensated for his service as the broker. The request was simple if he would be willing to contact my younger sister who is considering to change careers and would like to get his take on the real estate industry and ask the pros and cons selling high end houses. He said he would. 3 mos. have passed since the request and he has yet to contact my sister? I do not understand why a small kindness that would take no more than 30 minutes has gone undone. Pls. help me understand why a person would show such lack of courtesy after agreeing to do the favor. Thank you.

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I think you may be over-thinking this person’s motives. Life is hectic, people get busy and things slip people’s minds. Has your sister reached out to him? If he’s offering free advice, I think the task is hers to reach out, not his.


  6. Margaret says:

    Thank you. I will share your suggestion with my younger sister. Have a lovely Autumn. mSm

  7. anon says:

    It’s interesting to read this as people all have very different feelings about favours etc.

    I have an ex who used to keep a mental scorecard of EVERYTHING he did for anyone which I found absolutely infuriating (partly because it also worked the other way around so I would be scolded for making him chicken soup when he was ill because then he felt beholden, when I didn’t expect anything in return).

    I have a friend who is resentful even to be invited something she doesn’t want to go to because ‘they shouldn’t put me in that position’ (in which she has to say no).

    I have another friend who gets angry if someone asks her favour because ‘can’t they tell I’m busy?!’ (No, she hasn’t told them she’s busy and they don’t see her every day).

    I on the other hand enjoy being asked because I like feeling that others trust me and do not feel afraid to ask. I will say no if I really can’t, but I normally really enjoy the feeling that I am helping someone out. It’s not totally selflessness, of course, sometimes I just enjoy the boost to my own self esteem I get from being helpful and from feeling like I have made someone’s life easier or put a smile on their face. It makes me feel good about myself.

    I personally find it difficult to ask for favours, however, and always make a really big deal out of everything I have previously tried to do myself and that this really is a last resort and I’m so terribly sorry etc….I don’t know why I find it so difficult as I personally can’t help but look down on my friends sometimes when they get angry about being asked. I think it is a sign of cowardice. They have the right to say no, and they’re only angry because they don’t like saying no and they’re (wrongly) blaming the person who ‘made them feel that way’ (actually, your emotions are your own responsibility). In my view, one always has a right to ask, and one always has a right to say no.

    Yet despite all that, I still feel uncomfortable with asking for help…

  8. monica says:

    Question on text phone etiquette neighbor asks favor once says emergency can I pick up child said OK but I’m not working days I feel horrible well this neighbor has called 10 times today 1 text needs to know ASAP if I can do all week then came to house twice I didn’t answer first time cause didn’t want to feel guilty then when that person kept calling and coming felt harassed I think if I don’t answer after 2nd call than its a no am I wrong I just don’t want this to be habit

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      I think the best thing is to be direct and tell her no, you can’t help out.


  9. Robert says:

    So read what you wrote as I am having a problem with a family member constantly asking for favors. I dont mind helping i really dont. But this person ask for favors quite often. They range from can you take my dog to the vet and pay for it. Can you pick up some groceries for me and bring them over, and can i burrow some money. Unfortunately most of the favors always seem to be around money for them. I know their living situation isnt ideal but its not bad either. And these favors i wouldnt classify as and emergency either. For instance the vet visits are just for a check up for the dog and to get their toenails clipped. I even asked them have you tried to reschedule so the vet visits dont happen while your at work? they say they go with what every day and time the vet gives. Or for the groceries i asked if they could pick them up on their way home and they tell me its out of the way.

    Now they also always tell me i have the option to say no but the moment i tell them i cant they always say a small comment like so your not willing to help family or fine ill take time off and loose money then.
    Then when I ask for a favor they always seem to have a reason to say no. Which after they do i just let it go as I dont like to start fights. Now they have never paid me back on the money i loaned or spent and ive never tried to bring it up.

    So is it fine to say you know No more? If so how should i go about it cause i always seem to end up doing it one way or another as if i dont it always comes off with me being selfish and ungrateful.

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      You’re well within your rights to say no to any of these offers. It sounds like maybe now would be a good time to start saying no to break the cycle, especially when they’re things they could easily re-schedule to work within their own time frame.


  10. Cassie says:

    I enjoyed reading your article it was very insightful.
    But i have a general question. I have some friends that ask for favors daily every week. Got no problem helping and majority of the time they are kind and courteous.
    But my question is, Would that be a little excessive to ask for favors everyday all week long? Or as long as both the helper and Helpee are good its ok?

    1. Grace Bonney says:


      It sounds like those favors might be indicative of a larger need for help underneath- could you talk to that friend about why these favors pop up on a daily basis and if there’s anything else you could help them with to deal with the underlying cause? Is that friend in over their head? Do they need financial help? Do they need help setting up a schedule? There may be a root cause you could help with.

      But the bottom line is, if you’re ok with helping someone, it’s not a problem. I grew up in a community where people often helped each other with babysitting, rides, etc on a regular basis and everyone seemed just fine with it. So it’s really more about whether or not you’re ok with this and helping. If you are, then it sounds like you have a good friend and vice verse.



Design*Sponge reserves the right to restrict comments that do not contribute constructively to the conversation at hand, contain profanity, personal attacks, hate speech or seek to promote a personal or unrelated business. Our goal is to create a safe space where everyone (commenters, subjects of posts and moderators) feels comfortable to speak. Please treat others the way you would like to be treated and be willing to take responsibility for the impact your words may have on others. Disagreement, differences of opinion and heated discussion are welcome, but comments that do not seek to have a mature and constructive dialogue will not be published. We moderate all comments with great care and do not delete any lightly. Please note that our team (writers, moderators and guests) deserve the same right to speak and respond as you do, and your comments may be responded to or disagreed with. These guidelines help us maintain a safe space and work toward our goal of connecting with and learning from each other.