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4 Secrets to Making the Old-fashioned Ask

I’m convinced that one of the reasons I’m on earth is to provide comic relief for the people I meet by just doing the bizarre things that are just a natural part of being me. I was reminded of this recently when I sent my ten-year-old granddaughter into gales of laughter by thanking Alexa after it answered by request for the current temperature.

“Papa,” she giggled, “it’s a machine. It doesn’t know you’re thanking her.”

True, but I was raised by parents who taught me to always, but always, express thanks. Decades have made doing this automatic, even for a machine that is only simulating intelligence.

I tell this anecdote to introduce a topic that, while painfully simple, is also extremely important. It’s relevant to anyone but absolutely critical to people who are blind or visually-impaired, particularly if they are young: knowing how to appropriately ask for assistance.

In recent years, the shorthand for this is “the ask.” Businesses, sales organizations, and nonprofits devote considerable time and attention to training their personnel on how to ask for contributions, volunteer efforts, or sales. Stripped to their essentials, however, these are just sophisticated efforts at asking for assistance.

What I’d like to focus on is what I call the old-fashioned ask. That is, how do we ask others for assistance in our daily lives?

Now, before you dismiss this as obvious or superficial, I’d like to argue that there are right and wrong ways to do this. As Americans, we place far more emphasis on being independent than most other cultures and, in consequence, we aren’t always very comfortable with asking for help. Because people who are blind or visually-impaired are just going to have to do this more frequently than the average person, mastering the old-fashioned ask is especially important.

It’s not hard, but I think there are a couple of basics to keep in mind. Simple as they are, many people, sighted as well as blind, don’t follow them.

1. The other person should know that it’s all right to turn down your request for help. All of us have had the experience of feeling trapped, sometimes deliberately and sometimes innocently, into saying “yes” when we really wanted to say “no.” Neither party benefits by this in the long run. I’ve known more than a few blind people, and a number who aren’t, who have mastered the art of manipulating good Samaritans into doing things they really didn’t want to.

While this is a strategy that might be successful in the here and now, it doesn’t do much to cultivate a long-term relationship. You have to have a touch of masochism to want to be around for the next request from someone who manipulates you into doing something you really don’t want to.

Years ago, I worked with a colleague who had the reputation of being one of the most genuinely likeable and persuasive members of the faculty. I noticed that, whenever he made a request that he suspected might be inconvenient or difficult to fulfill, he would preface by saying, “If this is going to be a problem for you, please feel free to say ‘no’.”

I was so impressed by how well this technique worked for this man that I’ve shamelessly copied it for decades. I think it does two things. First, it frees the other person to feel comfortable to say “no” without jeopardizing our relationship. Second, and somewhat surprisingly, I’ve found it actually makes people more willing to say “yes.” I’ll leave it to the psychologists to explain why but I’ve seen it happen enough times over the years that I’m convinced that it works.

2. Make the request as convenient as possible for the person you’re asking. After all, and this can’t be emphasized too much, they’re the one who is doing you the favor. Sadly, there are no shortage of blind people who have been socialized to believe by family, school, and the general society, that they are entitled to help whenever and however they want. Of course, every single person I’ve ever known like this will deny in the strongest terms possible that they are acting as though they are entitled. It’s always the other guy who is entitled, never me.

Instead, they should be thinking, and not reluctant to ask, “Is this a good time for this; is this convenient for you, etc.?”

3. Whenever possible, adjust to the other person’s schedule. Since, for blind people, far and away, the largest number of times we ask for assistance has to do with transportation, this usually comes down to ensuring that we’re not imposing on the person we’re asking for the ride. Because what’s involved here should be painfully simple doesn’t mean that it’s always done. Frequently, it isn’t.

How do you know if you’re imposing on someone? There aren’t any money-back guarantees, but these are my personal guidelines. I don’t want to damage a friendship or make it uncomfortable to ask for another ride in the future.

Unless you need a ride to the emergency room, never knowingly ask someone to go out of their way.

Never make your ride wait when they pick you up. If the weather is nice, I always try to be waiting outside for a ride. There is need for a small personal digression here. Those of you reading this who have given me rides in the winter know that I don’t do this in bad weather. I grant myself an exception to the above rule because, as soon as I put on a coat and place a harness on my guide dog, he immediately knows he is going somewhere and just goes nuts. I’ve found having a ride wait ninety seconds while I get the dog ready is the only practical equivalent to administering a canine valium. Sometimes there are even exceptions to great rules.

Reimbursing someone for driving expenses involves more than gas. Because we don’t drive ourselves, I’ve known some really smart blind people who honestly believed that just paying someone they carpooled with for gas squared accounts. Well intentioned but wrong. As everyone learns as soon as they start driving, there are a lot more expenses to operating a car than gas.

4. Don’t forget to say thank you. This ought to be obvious, but, for too many people, it’s not. Interestingly, several recent studies have found that people who make extensive use of Alexa, Siri, or other virtual assistants become so accustomed to ordering their smart device around that, when dealing with other people, they are more inclined to turn requests into commands.

It’s important to remember that the old-fashioned ask involves relating to old-fashioned human beings and not machines. Saying “please” and “thank you” and expressing consideration and appreciation for the people you’re dealing with really are magical.

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