How To Successfully Ask For Favors

If there is one underlying commonality within the most successful women and men of our times, it is their ability to communicate. To be able to articulate your ideas in a manner that gets the point across and be able to get to what they eventually need (whether its mentor-ship or good PR or whatever) is what sets apart a leader from the rest.

So what goes into successful conversation and more importantly how can or should we ask for a favor? Should we be blunt? Should we indirect? Should we polite? What makes or breaks a request?

Well, I have a three part answer to that. So I’m going to break it down to part one for today. Today, we’ll talk about why people talk in indirect ways when it seems more beneficial to ask for favors directly. And in doing so, we’ll also explore what are the best ways to ask for favors. A study by Dr James Lee and Dr Steven pinker of Harvard University explored why strategic speakers use indirect speech.

The Thought Process

Psychologists and linguists are often puzzled as to why human beings use indirect speech where direct speech would do. For example, after a date why do we say, ‘would you like to come up for coffee’ instead of ‘hey, let’s have sex’ (though thanks to Tinder, this example might not be the best example to give. I’ll take my chances anyway). The psychologists looked to evolutionary biology in an attempt to answer the question.

They contended that a social relationship between two members of a species isn’t totally equal and so when we communicate (or ask for favors), we try to do so in a way that gives us the maximum advantage.

What they did

114 participants completed out an online questionnaire. The questionnaire had 4 fictional situations-

  1. Man asking for sex after a date (seduction)
  2. A driver trying to bribe a police officer to avoid a ticket (bribe)
  3. A professor threatening a talented student that she’ll lose the scholarship if she doesn’t work in his lab (threat)
  4. A new employee asking a supervisor or a peer for help with a difficult data analysis (favor)

The situations seem quite crude but when one reads the entire scenario which is available in the scientific paper, one realizes that Harvard professors aren’t as silly as the shortened version of the situation makes them sound. So moving on, the scientists then added three different manipulations within these situations –

  1. Manipulation of power  (whether the hearer was a peer or supervisor)
  2. Manipulation of social distance  (whether the hearer was a roommate of three years or an acquaintance)
  3. Manipulation of imposition (how much time the speaker was going to take up)

The participants read the scenarios and had to answer questions after reading them. They had to rate the tone- blunt (like, when you want your best friend to give you their last dumpling), polite (when talking to a professor), negatively polite (as in, kind of hesitant in asking for favors and apologizing a lot), somewhat indirect (when you’re trying to tell someone you like them, but you secretly hope they like you too and will say it if you just hint enough) or very indirect (when you’re in a lot of trouble with the parentals and you try to get out of it)

What they found

Blunt speech was popular but so was the negatively polite speech

The positively polite speech (an example the researchers give is, – “So, one workaholic to another. I, uh, was thinking that it would be really good for the whole company if I got this report done on time. Could you please help me with it?”)  was quite unpopular.

The interesting aspects are these – that as the power gap and imposition (time taken) increased people preferred somewhat indirect speech.

And more specifically, in the seduction situation 91% of the participants preferred indirectness, 58% did so in the bribe situation and 86% favored indirect speech in the threat situation.

What This Means for Us

Well, it depends on who and for what but mostly, it seems, when asking for favors from professionals and mentors, it’s best to hint a little (indirect) and then be negatively polite.

It seems that if you’re asking a favor from a peer or a friend, it’s best to be more direct and blunt about it.

The Paper

Lee, J. J., & Pinker, S. (2010). Rationales for indirect speech: The theory of the strategic speaker. Psychological Review, 117(3), 785-807. doi:10.1037/a0019688


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