“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are all born selfish.” - Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
In her 12-min TED talk, singer and songwriter Amanda Palmer makes a compelling case for asking. She nailed down quite clearly the reason why so many of us are reluctant to ask: “Asking makes you vulnerable”.
What is the vulnerability here? The vulnerability is to expose ourself: we say in an explicit way what we want, and therefore become dependant on others’ willing and judgement. We uncover a bit of ourselves, our thoughts, our motivation, our ignorance, things that we can’t take back. It is like in negotiation basics: being the first to say what you want leaves you in a weaker position.
The vulnerability can be explained by the lack of trust. We don’t mind asking people we really trust: they will not make fun of us, they will not let us down, they will not take advantage of us.
However, there are cases where we don’t want to ask, even with people we trust. Why is that so?
It has to come from the others
Let’s consider your birthday. Would you ask your friends to give you presents and send you greeting cards? It’s a bit weird, right? You don’t because you would much prefer that it comes from them directly, without having to explicitly ask.
On one side, this can be seen as care and generosity, and that is reasonable to expect from friends and beloved people. On the other side, this can be seen as “ego-management”: am I so important and so loved that others will act as I wish them to without having to ask?
If they don’t then, what conclusion do you draw? Is it that they don’t “care enough” about you? It is that they are selfish and lack generosity?
Can it be because they don’t understand your expectations? How do you make them understand your expectations without asking? It becomes a game of cat and mouse. People can wait each other for a long time and eventually miss the opportunity. Where does this gap of expectations come from?
Paying back and paying forward
I believe the main reason is cultural. It is implicitely expected that for your birthday, friends send you wishes and give you presents.
What is really interesting is that culture comes from the behaviours of people around us. If I’ve been given gifts for my birthday, I will pay it back but I can also pay it forward by giving gifts to others on their birthdays.
All this has to start by someone giving away something first. And that something can be unexpected. When we accept to ask, we accept vulnerability, we accept to be the first to give away a bit of ourself in the form of trust or in the form of pride. In doing so, we give the opportunity to give.