I have lived in the UK for the last 25 years, but the first 25 years of my life I spent in what is now called an ex-Soviet block country, so I have a view from both sides.
In the Eastern Europe people would generally be more interdependent, for the simple reason that the society was less commercialized. In the West you can usually buy anything you need, so the biggest issue is to have money to purchase goods and services. In the East there was more reliance on the informal means, especially when times got tougher. Younger people, who have less money, by necessity would use these methods more. If the society were to simplify itself and our relationships became more local and reciprocal, then those interpersonal skills would become more important than they are now.
Over the years I found that it is useful to know WHO to help. Helping others should be a two-way street. Unfortunately some people will use your help without appreciating your effort and they would not help you back if or when you need it. This note is about how to identify those who are not like that.
LIMITATIONS. I need to mention that there will be people you would always want to help without asking for anything in return – either because they are important to you or you know that they are in absolute need. Alternatively you are helping because you think that an idea or an organisation needs supporting. Or you are interested in the work itself and want to gain experience. This essay is not about those cases.
PURPOSE. This essay is purely on how to test your acquaintances to find people who are perceptive to sharing and helping. It also saves time and is fun to do. You want to identify those who appreciate the effort others expanded for their benefit and who are willing to pay back in a way they can.
STEP 1. ASK FOR HELP.
The fastest and easiest method is to ask somebody for help. It should be something small, that is well within their capability to do, but not something they think they have to do for you. You want them to exercise their judgment. If they do it – you thank them, reciprocate at a later date and they get onto your mental list of helpful people.
Unfortunately I found it quite hard, as I am not good at asking for help, so I haven’t developed the techniques in this area.
STEP 2. SET-UP AN EXPERIMENT.
This step is of limited use, but it still can give you an insight into how people operate. It is to set-up an disguised experiment, testing if people reciprocate. You set up a common resource and tell people that they are free to use it, but they should replenish what they have used. Then you discretely observe it over a prolonged time and make a mental note who replenished the used resource. You might find (as I did) that very few people will. While they would always pay back the money they borrowed, they don’t think of a common good the same way.
Example – some months ago I set up an informal scheme at work, where I put some chocolate on one of the cupboards and invited people to help themselves. I told them that if they think they have eaten a whole slab, they should buy a new one and replace it. This was running for several months. Many ate the chocolate, few replaced it, so you could be forgiven in thinking that the experiment was a failure. But it had some other benefits: it provided a nice atmosphere, nobody (but me) would take the last piece (which shows some appreciation) and if I identified some people who would have a communal spirit, that would be a bonus.
Another method would be to notice who buys drinks in a pub and if people buy their share. This is less likely to be meaningful, because there are relatively strict social rules about it (at least in the UK), and you want to test peoples’ hearts, not their adherence to the rules.
NB. This experiment is not worth doing unless the participants are all local - if they live far away, their helpfulness is of limited use if conditions deteriorate.
The following steps are dealing with what to do when somebody you know asks you for help and you are in a position to exercise choice; you are not obliged to help them. If your acquaintances know you as a practical person, you probably will be asked to help them quite often. When you are – this opens an opportunity for a new experiment.
STEP 3. ASK A ‘MAGIC QUESTION’.
When you are asked for help, say that you will help them, but first that person has to do something small to facilitate it. Usually there are some things that have to be done in preparation for the main work. Note that the person’s effort you are asking for can be small in comparison to the bulk of work required.
There are two reasons for this approach: first is to weed-out people who ask you to help them because they can’t be bothered to do it themselves and are too stingy to pay somebody else to do it as a part of their job. Secondly, if it is important to them, you want to help them.
You will be surprised how many people give up at this stage. If they do give up, it shows that they just wanted to use you as a source of free labour; you gain this new information and save yourself time and effort. Also people in this frame of mind don’t appreciate the efforts of others, so helping them would not be an investment either.
If they jump through this hoop, you know that the project is important to them (because they were prepared to invest some effort in it), so your work is more likely to be noticed.
Q: Could I borrow your wallpaper stripper, please?
A: Sure, but would you ring me tonight and remind me to put it in the boot of my car? Otherwise I will forget. My memory is pretty bad.
Q: Could you come to my house and put-up some shelves, please?
A: Sure, can you write which tools of (xxx type) you have? Also you will need to buy (screws, ..... –list here). Let me know when you are ready.
Q: Could you set-up my web-site, please?
A: Sure, I think the best approach would be if you designed it on a piece of paper, together with its functionality. If you need any patterns or pictures, would you collect those in one folder too? Let me know when you are ready.
(At a campsite)
Q: Would you be so kind and darn my socks, please?
A: Sure, but only if they are clean.
Note that in each of those cases you come out as a really helpful guy, even if that person doesn’t take you up on the offer. This is a ‘magic question’.
The beauty of the ‘magic question’ approach is that it doesn’t only apply to voluntary arrangements – it can also be used at work or in any other interpersonal exchanges: (Does the client really need this project to be done so quickly? Does my child really want that toy so badly? Does my wife really want that wall painted?).
The ‘magic question’ technique should be practiced whenever the opportunity arises, then it becomes a second nature. Children are perfect test subjects for practising the skill, because they ask for help a lot. They will also enjoy helping with the execution.
STEP 4. DO THE WORK TOGETHER.
Once that person jumped through the first hoop, it is time to do some work. This becomes more job-specific, but the general rules are:
- make sure that you are helping the person, not doing the job for them. So if there is any part of the job they can do – they should.
- If possible, they should stay with you while you are doing the work. There are four reasons for this: First – they learn how to do the tasks, so it improves the practical skills of the people you know. Second – they may be able to do smaller tasks, which are helpful (like bringing tools or making cups of tea). Third – they see how much effort you expanded; people who are not practical have no idea how long tasks take, so they are likely to underestimate your effort. Fourth: It is more fun (and safer in many cases) to do work, when there are helpers around.
- If it is not possible for the person to help (for example in some highly technical computer work), then they still should be around, perhaps doing something else. For example they could cook dinner for you or paint a wall while you are working for them. This is not ideal, but at least they see how long things take.
You want to avoid the situation that you work on your own over several week-ends and the recipient complains that the project took so long, they would be better off going to a professional and pay for it. This may well be the case – why didn’t they?
STEP 5. APPRECIATION.
For some time after the work is done (some weeks) tune into some signs of appreciation – a nice chat, a ‘Thank you’ note, or a mention of the results of the project and how well it works. A thoughtful and appreciative person would make a gesture showing that. If you lent something to somebody, the equipment should come back promptly in a state not worse than it was lent. It should be brought to your house, rather than you having to go somewhere to collect it.
STEP 6. RECIPROCATION.
Some time after the project is finished (weeks or months), ask the person for some (small) help. This should be something that is well within their capabilities. This could be running a small errand for you, or picking your children from school one day. Infirm people could be keepers of spare keys to your house or have a parcel delivered to their address when you are at work. Most helpful people would be delighted to reciprocate.
Perhaps they can’t help you for good reasons – then they would normally say why they can’t help; it would be very specific and followed by an offer to do something else. But if they give you a feeble excuse (like ‘I don’t have time’ coming from a person with no children and no job), then you know they are just parasites and don’t help them again.
The techniques described above lead to more knowledge of the people around you, which you may have to rely on in hard circumstances. The usefulness of this approach is that it gives you the information about how helpful your neighbours and friends are, while building better relationships with the ones you want to keep. It also saves you a lot of time and effort, as vast majority of people are not willing to help themselves. If executed well it builds good will and the people around you don’t notice that you are testing them.
The technique (especially the ‘magic question’) should be practiced as often as possible, in as many unrelated environments and relationships as you can. Eventually it becomes a second nature. It allows you to concentrate your efforts on the tasks that are really wanted, rather than dissipate your energy, because the person you are helping can’t be bothered to do it for themselves.
This better focus and knowledge about the people around you should help you choose a stronger group of friends who have helped you in the past.