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New York Newsday - October 10, 2005
Written By Kimberly Winston
One thing in life is just as certain as death and taxes - someone, somewhere, sometime will ask you for a favor. Probably more than one. And it is just as sure that you will need to ask a favor of someone, too.
"Will you help me move?"
"Will you feed my cat?"
"Will you water my plants?"
"Will you loan me five bucks?"
"Will you do me a favor and help me, please?"
You might not like asking for favors, but if you want "yes" to be the reply, the way you phrase the request is crucial, etiquette experts say.
"That is absolutely the most important thing," says Samantha von Sperling, a Manhattan-based image consultant with Long Island clients. "And you generally only get one chance, so make it count."
To do that, von Sperling suggests vastly overstating the importance of the favor before you ask it. "Preface the question as if it were 10 times more important than what you are eventually going to ask," she says. "Say, 'May I ask of you this enormous favor,' or, 'I know this is tremendous, but it would mean the world to me.' And then you ask can I have $5 for taxi fare, and they are like, is that it? And they will say, 'Oh, I can do that.'"
Research suggests providing a reason for the favor brings a better chance for a "yes," too.
Ellen Langer, a Harvard University social psychologist, had students ask people waiting for a copier at a public library, "Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I am in a rush?" Ninety-four percent responded with a yes. But when "because I am in a rush" was dropped, only 60 percent complied.
M. Joann Wright, a psychology professor at Hofstra University, says the results illustrate the effectiveness of "assertive communication," in which the asker considers not only his needs - to use the copier - but also the need of the askee to know why he or she is being asked.
"It helps them feel more connected to the favor, more like they are going to provide you much-needed help," Wright says. "It really changes the rationale in people's minds, to have that explanation."
Body language, too, can help with a positive response.
When asking a favor, Tonya Reiman, a Smithtown-based teacher of communication skills, suggests making direct eye contact by aligning your right eye to their right eye. She also recommends mirroring the other person's body language and voice pattern. If they are smiling, you smile; if they are speaking softly, you speak softly.
"If you can do that, you will gain rapport," Reiman says. "You will relax the other person and come across as likable."
Helping people decide
That likability may be more crucial to getting a favor done than anything else. "People like to help people who are good and genuine people," Reiman says.
That is why some very big people will do some very big favors - help before or after a medical procedure, or co-sign a loan, or lend a large sum of money. These favors should only be asked of someone you know intimately. The better they know you - and how much you truly need the favor - the more likely they are to say yes and not to feel imposed upon.
Then there are the unreturnable favors - the donation of a kidney or other organ, the use of one's body as a surrogate mother. Those kinds of favors can only be asked of one's closest, dearest friends and family. And while they are difficult - if not impossible - to return in kind, there are ways to show appreciation and gratitude for such acts of selflessness.
"Do some homework," says Cheryl Lee, director of the Etiquette and Protocol Centre of Long Island in Elmont. "You may offer services, a donation to a favorite charity, or a gift of some kind. It may even be in the form of passing the good deed along to someone else in the future."
Same rules in business
In business favors, many of the same rules apply - but they are magnified. That's because the stakes are generally higher than in a personal favor.
Such favors may include the loan of business equipment, the sharing of business contacts and the use of business expertise.
In other words, business favors are almost always about one five-letter word - money.
Rule No. 1, says Mercedes Alfaro, director and president of First Impression Management, a business etiquette consulting firm with a center in Manhattan, is be prepared for a "no."
"When you make the request, be sure to give them a way out," to reduce the risk of embarrassing yourself or your associate - usually detrimental to good business relationships, she says. And if they do say no, remember, it's business. "Try to avoid taking it personally."
Also off limits is asking business associates personal favors, like watching your kids or picking up your dry cleaning. Ditto on the loan of money or equipment.
"A sage rule is to avoid asking favors that involve the loan of anything important to the individual you are asking, or the introduction to people for any kind of personal advancement," Alfaro says.
And if someone does you a favor, remember: "You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours," isn't about porcupines with itchy skin. It is fitting that you acknowledge the favor with a big, fat thank you. That means a handwritten note - no e-mail - or sending flowers, a gift certificate or some other thoughtful acknowledgment.
It also means you return the favor with an equal or slightly bigger favor. So, if someone feeds your cat for the weekend, you feed their dog. If someone waters your plants, you mow their lawn.
And throw in a box of doughnuts while you're at it.
"Otherwise... it makes you look coarse and unrefined and ungrateful and rude. And that is horrible."
How To Get the Answer You Always Want - YES