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How to ask for a favor when *everyone* is already at full capacity, according to an etiquette expert

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisApril 13, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/Tim Robberts

Are you feeling powerful pangs of guilt surging through you when you need to call in some help? I get it—calling in a favor right now is like asking a Titanic passenger if they could share their life jacket. We’re all on the struggle boat because of individual pandemic woes, so if it wasn’t hard enough asking for help before, figuring out how to ask for a favor these days really is a delicate art form.

That said, it’s also not impossible. Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, is crystal clear about two things.

First, the favor shouldn’t risk someone else’s health, emotional wellbeing, or finances. “Make sure your request is reasonable and necessary,” says Gottsman. “For example, if you are feeling sick, and don’t have access to using a delivery app or service, asking a close friend or family member to drop off a fever reducer if they live close by would be realistic request. No contact—just drop off at the front door.”

And second, while there’s probably no perfect one-size-fits-all phrase, the best way to approach an ask is with absolute sincerity. “Everyone is going through the same thing but we all go through it differently,” says Gottsman. “If you are asking for help from a friend or family member, you might consider saying, ‘I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t really need your help.’ On a lighter note, if it is something you would like from a good neighbor you might say. The next time you make your delicious cornbread recipe, I’d love a slice if you have enough to share. Again, it should be a genuine request which doesn’t have guilt associated with it.”

“It would really mean a lot to me,” is my go-to line when when I need space while working from home—setting boundaries with my parents has been a journey. The ability to write with minimal interruptions is very important, and I’ve learned that top-of-my-lungs temper tantrums don’t have the same impact that they did at, say, two (or 27, if I’m being honest).

Instead I’ll say: “It would really mean a lot to me if it could wait until I’ve finished this article.” Or I’ll barter with my brother: “It would really mean a lot to me if you could set the table.” When I needed to set up a home office, I said: “It would really mean a lot to me if I could use the computer room since it’s 2020 and none of you need a designated computer room anyway.” The next one I’m working on goes like this: “It would really mean a lot to me if I can make Timothée Chalamet the desktop background on the monitor.”

Be authentic and reasonable. Adjust in regards to the scenario, and find phrases that come from the heart. At the end of the day, we all want to help each other if we can, so it never hurts to ask.

Have to compose a controversial email? This one phrase will make it polite. And this is how to express all the love languages even in quarantine.

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