Here’s the Best Way to Ask Someone for a Favor

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When asking someone for a favor — almost always an activity that’s at least a little bit awkward — it can be tempting to hide behind the safety of your email: No need to see the other person’s face as you make the ask, or to hear the sting of immediate rejection with your own ears. Email is less uncomfortable, easier on the ego.

It’s also, unfortunately, less likely to get you what you want. In a recent study highlighted this week by the Association for Psychological Science blog, Cornell’s Vanessa Bohns of Cornell and the University of Waterloo’s M. Mahdi Roghanizadad found that asking a stranger for something face-to-face tends to yield better results than asking via email — and that people tend to think of email as much more effective than it really is, while underestimating the power of the in-person request.

In previous research covered by Science of Us, Bohns found that people tend to underestimate how often strangers will agree to a random request. In this latest study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, she and Roghanizadad ran several experiments investigating if the way the request was delivered made any difference. In one experiment, undergraduate volunteers were given a script asking people to fill out a questionnaire; half of them could send the script out to ten random university email addresses, while the other half had to approach ten people in person and recite it. In another, participants were given a similar challenge, with a slight twist: This time, all the people they approached had previously signed on to fill out the questionnaire in exchange for a fee; the volunteers’ task was to convince them to take on some unpaid proofreading work.

In both cases, volunteers were asked ahead of time how many people they thought would agree to their request — and in both cases, members of the email and face-to-face groups predicted equal success rates. Both experiments also yielded the same result: People who asked for their favors in person were seen as more trustworthy, and thus were better at securing the “yes.” As the participants predicted, those on the receiving end of the request also felt more uncomfortable in face-to-face interactions — but this actually worked in their favor, as they felt worse about refusing. It seems that asking for a favor is a choice between two situations, each with its own ups and downs: Make things comfortable and take your chances, or be a little awkward in pursuit of what you want.

Here’s the Best Way to Ask Someone for a Favor