Dear Strictly Good Advice,
I need to learn how to ask more direct questions. I no longer want to ask “Do you mind doing this thing when you get the chance?” when I am asking a basic thing; I would like to be able to ask “Can you do this please?” Do you have any advice for being confident, straightforward, and even a little indignant when I ask people to do things that they should already be doing?
Thank you for the question. Before we proceed, I should remind my readers everywhere — this includes you, Alice — that while at Strictly Good Advice we do our best to keep our standards as eponymous as possible, there are no relevant professionals involved in the making of this column. It’s just me. And even though I see no reason why you shouldn’t trust me, your life is your life. As such, you’d be wise to consult a relevant professional (which, I repeat, I am not) on any seriously consequential decisions you plan to take before or after reading this column.
Sorry, Alice, but in the case of your very special question I have one more disclaimer. I won’t be able to explain or account for your perceived lack of confidence in theoretically comfortable situations. Your question is wrapped up in a complicated problem of the human condition that goes back to the Greeks of antiquity, who spent some time trying to intelligibly account for what they called “akrasia,” or, very roughly, the human behavior of acting against one’s known best interests. In your case, you might even say you are not-acting against your best interests. It is an interesting phenomenon that I am not confident in my ability to dissect — you could say it’s above my pay grade, if you’re the type to use a socioeconomically questionable idiom. So I will defer to the academic literature on any psychic insight or other self-knowledge you may be looking for. What I can offer you are some suggestions, specifically prescribed turns of speech or action that you may test in low-risk environments to see if they have potential to reduce your anxiety over the imperative.
First, let’s consider the circumstances that would force you into the kind of scenario suggested in your question. Someone has agreed to invest time and energy — n.b., not that much time or energy — in doing something at the request of you or perhaps a third party. It is not necessarily a favor, and the motivation for the request may not even have been yours. Maybe it is a co-worker who needs to sign your boss’s birthday card, or a family member who needs to give the dog fewer treats at the behest of the veterinarian. In any case, you are included in some kind of contract between people who somehow depend on other people and have got it in your head that you are responsible for making sure that this dependence is satisfied. Some deadline for acceptable response to social stimulus passes and it seems like the obligated party is having trouble meeting the demands imposed upon them. So you start to think that it would be helpful to at least encourage this person to prioritize the trivial step towards meeting a social commitment a little more highly. You make a plan to do something and, here we have reached the critical juncture — you don’t do that thing. For some ancient Greek reason, you shy away from gentle, if decisive, action and instead cling viscerally to your apparent social debts like a fart at the dinner table. I will now put this “fart” under the symbolic microscope so as to shift our focus from a perennial mega problem to a fun analogy.
If you’re about to fart at, say, the dinner table, you could recognize your options with a sense of urgency. You can retreat quickly into the bathroom and explain later. You can let it rip, convention be damned. Or, you can do nothing; this is usually referred to as “holding it in.” For reasons that are beyond the gastroenteric scope of this column, I do not recommend holding it in. Imagine if, like in the case of the dinner table fart, you had only three options available to you every time you were in a social scenario as conceived in the previous paragraph. Say, almost arbitrarily, that your three options are as follows:
You can spend time writing the most polite and least incriminating sentence that would give someone the impression that they should drop whatever they are doing, unless it is a child, small animal or fragile laptop computer, and tend to the basic task that involves you as specified by you. Don’t stop until you have a capital letter all the way to a period. Memorize if necessary and immediately repeat this sentence, out loud or in print, to its intended recipient. You can write down the first germane sentence that comes to mind. At your earliest possible convenience, repeat this sentence, out loud or in print, to its intended recipient. Or, you can hold it in. Grow queasy. Wriggle in discomfort. Leave some stone indefinitely unturned.
Scripting a conversation makes it a lot easier to carry out. Instead of paying attention to the words that you transmit in dialogue, focus on how well you project to the audience, if you are enunciating properly, the kind of accent or simulated affect you should speak toward, etc. You are no longer asking somebody to do something. Instead, you are just delivering a convincing line in an audition, or a political oratory, or a commencement speech. You can return to the conversation after the successful delivery feeling less responsible, because it was not you but a one-line-only character, introduced and immediately exiled, who could possibly be suspected of “nagging” or “demanding” behavior.
I do that sometimes when I have to demand something that seems unnecessary for me, the person, to demand; it has worked worse than some hypothetical best option, and better than doing nothing. My point is not really that you can solve your social problems by indulging a theatrical impulse. Rather, my point is that when you’ve got a fart you can either let it out or hold it in. There are a lot of reasons to, and means by which, you can let out a fart at the dinner table. And as I mentioned earlier, holding it in is ill-advised. The bottom line is that some of the sentences you’ve got to say in this life are going to feel a lot like farts. They are a natural consequence of normal life. They might produce a little odor or noise, they might not. They might cause you some discomfort, they might not. In the best case, you experience relief; in the worst case, you experience undue shame. In any event, whatever happens will quickly disappear into the unwritten history of human flatulence. If you study that history closely you will see that nobody ever suffered, long term, because they opted to let out a little gas.
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