Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Turning Down Help

Hello Polite Readers!

Today's column is another reader-request topic. My anonymous questioner would like to know the best way to handle unwanted offers of help.

But wait... why wouldn't you want help? Well, there's a variety of reasons. Sometimes you prefer to do things your own way. Every time we visit my in-laws I offer to help clear up after dinner and my mother-in-law always says "No thank you, I have my system" which is really the nicest way to say "I'd rather you didn't get in my way" and honestly, I'm not sure why I'm writing an entire column when her words work perfectly. In fact, since we've got that covered, let's talk about other situations.

There may be times when you really need help, but you don't want it from a specific person. Maybe that person annoys you, or maybe they're really bad with what you need help with but think they're really good -- for instance, you have a band and you lose your guitarist and your friend who can barely play the scales (do you even play scales on a guitar? I'm bad at music) jumps at the chance to take their spot. Oh no! How do you politely say "Actually, you suck at the guitar"?

Unfortunately, as far as I know there's no polite way to tell someone they suck (otherwise I'd be doing it all the time because there are a lot of people out there who need to put more effort into what they do). Instead you have to frame it in such a way that suggests that they're not quite what you need. You might say:

"I don't think you quite fit the band's style."

"We really need someone who already knows how to play classical Spanish style guitar. Oh, I'm sure you could learn but we need a new guitarist right now."

"That's so sweet of you but no thank you."

Oftentimes when you go ahead and accept the offer of unskilled help, you just end up wasting more time cleaning up after them than getting things done. I always shudder when someone says they want to "help" with my jewelry business. If they were good at making jewelry, they'd have their own business. Same for people who have never taken a bellydance class in their life but want to come over and dance with me. In both cases, it's obvious that they want free lessons from me, and that's not happening. Of course, this isn't always how unwelcome "help" works out. Mostly people genuinely do mean well, they're just clueless.

To avoid these situations, be careful in mentioning things that you need help with. People tend to think that a complaint is a subtle way of asking for help. After all, when a friend says "Packing is taking forever!" don't you immediately feel compelled to say "Oh, let me know if you need any help moving?" even though helping with moving is the last thing you want to do with your weekend? Of course you do, because you're a good friend. So just don't mention your home improvement plans in front of your friends who see such projects as an excuse to have a nail gun fight, or the friends who always offer to "help" but manage to show up late, not get anything done, and eat all the pizza.

Would you like to suggest a topic for this blog or see your letter published? Please write me at!

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