"Can I ask you a favor?" is a phrase that scares me to the bone. It's right up there with "Do you have a different credit card?" "Step onto the scale, please" and "We'll be making an unexpected landing in Utah."
There's an art to asking for favors. There's also an art to accepting them and refusing them.
I think we've crossed some kind of cultural continental divide and have slid into a goopy morass regarding what's expected of us, from which even Miss Manners herself cannot extract us.
I'm hearing a litany of complaints: When it comes to favors, where are appropriate boundaries? Was Robert Frost's "good fences make good neighbors" (based on the Medieval Latin proverb "bonum est erigere dumos cum vicinis") telling us that, in order to keep our friendships, we must also keep our distance?
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Then folks want to know how far away and how high the fence needs to be built and whether it should be decorated with flowers or topped with barbed wire.
They want to know what to do when somebody they don't like keeps ringing the bell at the gate. They're not even attempting to raise larger political issues; they're not talking about the refugee situation.
What they really want to know is who they have to pick up at the airport.
I'm not talking about fetching your own guests, family members or close friends on their arrival. Of course you'll be there, along with bottles of cold water.
But apparently nice people are now expected to retrieve mere acquaintances whose flights arrive after midnight. Those requesting the favor justify their entreaties by saying things like "You're up late anyway!" These types will wheedle, "C'mon, I'll buy you dinner," as if the pleasure of their company and a basket of chicken wings was enough of a reward.
I'm here to reassure you that you need not lose sleep over refusing a request from people whose motivations are to make their life more convenient at the expense of inconveniencing yours.
We need, in other words, to re-calibrate and clarify certain aspects of our social code. We need to return value to the currency of favors, thereby reinvigorating the economy of our graciousness. Here are some ways to begin:
If you're going to ask for a favor, be straightforward. Don't start by saying, "What kind of mileage do you get on that truck?" Just ask, "Would you be willing to help me move next month? I've got two sofas, a mattress and a dining room table, with friends to help carry. I understand entirely if it won't work; I know you're busy." Give your friend the details -- and an easy out.
If somebody does you a favor, part of your role in the exchange is to thank that person sincerely and swiftly. Don't tell yourself that they know you're grateful. Express it in actual language and use whole words. If, for example, you ask a person for a letter of recommendation, you should express your gratitude for that person's effort in more than four emoticons, unless emoticons were the language used by the person writing the letter.
If you agree to do someone a favor, be gracious. Do not complain, rethink or extort. Emotional extortion is creepy. The worst villains under our code are not those who ask for favors but those who agree to the commitment and then get resentful, snarky or belligerent. Even if you regret having said yes, you have to assume generosity. You can't go back on your word and you shouldn't rescind the impulse that made you agree.
If you've been given the gift of having time, resources or abilities from which others would benefit, be happy to offer these and not with the assumption that you will be repaid. Don't be like Don Corleone; a real favor is offered without expectation. A favor is given as a gift. You offer it with both hands or you don't offer it at all.
Once you've done a favor, forget that you've done it. If you've received a favor, never forget that you've received it -- and be sure you pass it on.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant. She can be reached through her www.ginabarreca.com.