What Do You Say When People Let You Down?

We’ve all been there.  Someone you’ve helped whenever he or she needed it just couldn’t do a small thing for you.  Perhaps you’ve tortured yourself over the disappointment or you flown into a rage.  Either way, you’re the one who suffered.

There are many people who don’t understand quid pro quo.  And while doing favors for people with the expectation of an equivalent return is often a recipe for disappointment, it’s only human to expect that someone you’ve helped over and over or reached out to at great expense to you will be there for you should you need a small favor.  And yet, so often that’s not what happens.  This is especially possible in cultures like that of the U.S. where a sense of obligation doesn’t run as deep as it does in countries like Japan.  In research I conducted on international business gift customs used by the Chief of Protocol and around the world, that difference was evident.  Obligation to reciprocate is not engrained.  This is why Bob Cialdini, author of Influence, recommends when doing a favor, it’s often useful to respond to the other person’s thank you with something along the lines of,  “I’m sure you’d do the same for me.”

You may wonder:  “Why should I have to do that?”  After all, shouldn’t people realize that receiving repeated favors obligates them to at least return one?  Maybe so.  But I find that people used to asking for favors and getting them often don’t recognize or remember their good fortune.  Sometimes they think their status justifies it.  Perhaps they are “nice” people, so doing things for them is easy.  But what if the one time you ask for help, they just can’t see their way clear to providing it?

That’s when you should stop providing favors to this person.  If their refusal is eating up brain space, causing you to feel miserable, you might address the issue.  You could wait for their next favor request or, when you’re feeling calm, consider saying:  “I’m reserving my favors for people who reciprocate.”  It’s harsh, but perhaps deserved.  It might lead to a fruitful conversation if you can stay calm.

If that’s too direct for you, consider saying, “When you next want a favor, call me after you’ve done at least one for me.”  Okay, for some people still too harsh.  But maybe that’s the problem.  If you say these things without defensiveness, it may just be the wake-up call needed.

If you just want to tweak a person’s sense of obligation, another option is: “Just so you’ll know, my favor bank is empty.”  See where that takes you.

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