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Why doing others a favour during COVID-19 times may not be helping you

Instead of just agreeing to a request while letting the disdain slowly build, make a well-informed decision.

Why doing others a favour during COVID-19 times may not be helping you

(Art: (The New York Times/Giacomo Gambineri)

Until February of this year, doing a friend a favour was mostly a matter of logistics, timing and an honest conversation about whether, well, this friend was worth the effort. But now, as the coronavirus continues to surge, every action, ask and decision carries more weight than ever.

However, if you still feel the desire to take one for the team and assist a pal in need, you’re not alone. While doing favours isn’t necessarily an innate human behaviour, we’re socially conditioned to want to help out when asked.

“We have this fundamental need to belong, and this fundamental need to feel like good people,” said Vanessa Bohns, an associate professor of organisational behaviour at Cornell. “And saying no to someone, rejecting someone who needs our help, goes against both of those things.”

But being the friend, family member or loved one constantly called upon for tasks can take its toll. We expect our relationships to be balanced, Dr Bohns said, so feeling as if we are perpetually shouldering the weight of doing a good deed can breed resentment.

And during a pandemic – when personal boundaries and comforts can deviate from what we’ve become accustomed to – being asked to water a neighbour’s garden while that person’s at the beach carries a greater consideration of risk than it would ordinarily.

Before agreeing to lend a hand, weigh the potential hazards and logistics, so you can make well-informed decisions about whether to take on the service asked of you.


During the pandemic, many of us have wanted to offer a helping hand to communities in need, through donations to charities and small businesses, or by shopping for elderly neighbours or those who are vulnerable. However, not all requests come without risk.

In the past, a request to help plan a baby shower would have been a quick yes, but now there is much more to consider: Would helping to host the event require you to interact with many people? Have you potentially been exposed to the virus? Can you account for the other guests’ adherence to social distancing? Will the asker feel personally judged if you decline?

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“These circumstances make saying no to these kinds of requests especially tricky because by saying no, we are essentially saying to the other person that they are doing something wrong by asking,” Dr Bohns said.

She suggests creating a script for how you’ll turn down favours you feel carry too much risk. Whether your prepared statement includes explaining how the favour potentially exposes others is up to you, she said. “Whatever point you do or don’t want to make by declining, it helps to have thought of what you want to say in advance.”


Think about how often you agree to requests – party invitations, help at work, last-minute car pools and so on – without really taking into consideration what is being asked. Research shows we tend to mindlessly agree to favours because we’re on autopilot: Accepting a request is almost a knee-jerk reaction, Dr Bohns said.

People’s conversational styles differ, and what one person perceives to be a direct plea for assistance may not register as a request to someone else. So it’s important to take the time to really digest the nature of a favour, said Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of “You’re The Only One I Can Tell: Inside The Language Of Women’s Friendships.

It’s also easy to feel put on the spot when someone asks for a favour (regardless of whether it comes face-to-face or via FaceTime): The ask itself is loaded with pressure, no matter how polite, Dr Bohns said. However, don’t make a knee-jerk decision based on a willingness to help, especially now when calls to action abound. To give yourself some time to think about what you’re really agreeing to, ask the requester to send the details in an email, or say you need to look at your schedule first, Dr Bohns said.

“Something that allows you the space to also say no, if you’re going to say no, is more gentle so you can point to things that aren’t the person,” she said. “You can take the time to come up to the response that still leaves the relationship intact.”


While most people have the best intentions and want to be helpful, it’s important to consider whether you have the time and mental bandwidth to complete the task, said Susan Newman, a social psychologist and the author of The Book Of No: 365 Ways To Say It And Mean It – And Stop People-Pleasing Forever.

If a colleague asks you to watch and critique a practice run of their upcoming Zoom presentation – a commitment that could eat up a few hours of your day – consider the sacrifices you would have to make. Would you have to reschedule meetings at work? What other favours are you currently managing that would force you to stretch yourself thin? Also worthy of consideration, Dr Newman said, is the question: What’s in it for me?

“That sounds selfish, but it really isn’t,” she said. “If you’re overextended and stressed by the favours you’ve agreed to, you’ve essentially lost control of your own life and you don’t have time to rejuvenate, to rest, to take care of yourself.”


Although asking favours has been shown to promote closeness, we’re just as likely to offer assistance to a stranger as we are to a close friend, research shows. So fielding a query from a distant colleague may not be so outlandish.

Instead of overburdening our close friends and family members with countless favour requests, Dr Bohns said, “we don’t realise there’s this certain subset of people who we’re not as close to who are just as happy to help you because of this default to be good people”.

There is something to be said for closeness, Dr Tannen said. Because she receives so many requests for introductions to literary agents and glances at book manuscripts, she said, she devotes time to helping only those close friends and authors whose work she supports.

However, Dr Newman said, if you do have history with the requester, she is not suddenly going to break off the relationship or disown you because you can’t drop her off at the airport this time.

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In professional settings, we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss requests for assistance from peers or subordinates, brushing them off as unimportant or unlikely to have a real impact on our careers, said Daniel Gulati, managing director of Comcast Ventures and author of Passion And Purpose: Stories From The Best And Brightest Young Business Leaders, who wrote about asking for favours in Harvard Business Review.

“Your boss today could be a peer, or even a subordinate, tomorrow,” he said. “Someone you perceive as junior today may be your co-founder in a future venture. Over-filtering requests based on someone’s seniority today is a very short-term perspective to take.”


Instead of wondering why a person has called upon you to lend a hand, ask yourself what is motivating you to say yes, Dr Newman said. Does a fear of confrontation or uncomfortable conversations lead you to consistently acquiesce? Look to what drives your response, she said, instead of wondering, “Why is this person asking me?”

The interpersonal seesaw of favour-asking can affect how others perceive us and may inspire us to be more agreeable. The phenomenon known as the Ben Franklin effect posited that people will like us more when we ask them for favours.

A 2014 study published in the Journal Of Social Psychology supported this theory, finding that people have increased feelings of closeness to the person who asked them a favour.

If guilt is your primary motivator, perhaps it’s best to say no, Dr Newman said. Agreeing to help a friend move, despite a recent back injury, just because you feel distressed saying no, doesn’t serve your well-being. Politely decline and squash any negative feelings, since requesters are seldom thinking about why you turned them down, Dr Newman said.

“When you say no, people are not thinking about you, worrying about you, as much as you worry about what they’re thinking,” she said.


When we agree to favours in the distant future, we don’t really see them as something we’ll ever have to follow through on, Dr Bohns said.

“We’re thinking about it in this abstract way,” she said. “And then when we’re in the moment two weeks later, it becomes concrete and that’s when we’re like, ‘Ugh, I wish I didn’t do this’.”

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By thinking to the future, you can imagine the pet-sitting, the shift-covering or the trip to the grocery store as a very real to-do list item.

This means taking advance stock of the types of activities and tasks you’re comfortable doing right now, Dr Bohns said. That way, if a friend asks you to tag along to a backyard party – and that’s on your “No Way” list – you won’t feel put on the spot.

And even if you did agree to take on the favour, you’re not married to the task.

“Just the fact that you said you would and then you think about it and realised you’re not at all comfortable about it,” Dr Tannen said, “doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind.”

By Allie Volpe © The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Source: New York Times