How to Ask a Stranger For Help

“Asking for help is hardly ever as bad as you imagine it will be,” says Vanessa Bohns, a social psychologist and associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. For research purposes, she and colleagues have sent help-seekers out into cities all over the world to request things from 15,000 strangers. Appealing for assistance “feels socially risky,” Bohns says. Ask anyway. When asked for help, most people are happy to comply. “We are a social species,” Bohns says. “We default to being agreeable rather than disagreeable.”

Keep your request simple and direct. “Don’t offer a million excuses and apologies,” she says. To avoid potential rejection, you might feel inclined to passively hint at what you need rather than saying it outright. Don’t do that. Ask directly for what you need, and if someone says no, move on and ask another person. Whether you’re approaching a stranger or a friend, it’s always more effective to ask for help in person. “Be face to face,” Bohns says. “It’s more emotional.”

Assume the stranger will help you. In one study, Bohns and a colleague had undergraduates approach people they didn’t know and say, “Can I use your cellphone to make a call?” Before starting, the undergrads had to predict how many people they would have to ask to get three to agree; they overestimated by more than 60 percent. It turned out that about half the strangers shared their phone. The help-seeker tends to believe people will weigh the time and financial costs associated with offering assistance, but it turns out saying no is awkward, and most people would rather just say yes, even when the request feels ethically questionable. In another study, Bohns had people ask strangers to write the word “pickle” in a library book. Many were reluctant and uncomfortable, but ultimately some 65 percent of them vandalized the book anyway.

Try not to seek help from strangers in a location where others are simultaneously approaching them with requests. The only place that Bohns found where strangers mostly refused to help was a busy street in Toronto frequented by canvassers and petitioners. People steel themselves in those kinds of scenarios. “It’s easier to say no when you know what’s coming,” she says.

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