I want you to think about all the times someone has asked you to do them a favour when they were really trying to tell you to do something. At work, at school, at home, it happens all over the place. Can you think of a time when you’ve done it? I know I can think of times when I have, and I think it comes from a misunderstanding of the essential differences between asking and telling. Often, it seems like we ask when we should tell, or tell when we could ask. The two methods often seek to accomplish the same thing, but can have methods (and results) that differ radically. I think this is because of the way that we use them. But first, what’s the real difference between asking and telling?
Asking is just that, a request, and by definition leaves an opening for someone to decline. Whether proposing marriage or requesting the salt at the dinner table, there’s always at least two options when we ask someone to do something. Having a choice means that there’s less pressure for the person being asked, because it puts them in control. This can create pressure for the person asking, because it means giving up some of their control. But this isn’t control they ever had in the first place.
When we tell someone to do something, we’re giving them an order which we expect to be obeyed, and usually some kind of consequence is implied. The thing with telling is that it removes choice, and necessarily involves not entirely respecting someone’s autonomy. They don’t get to choose whether or not to do it, we do. However, there are certainly situations in which telling is a legitimate and appropriate action. In situations of great urgency, for example. If a child is drowning, we might order someone to save them if they can get there before we can, rather than asking them and letting them decide. Another situation where telling would be advisable is in cases of mutually recognized authority. When an employer sets a deadline or gives an order, we can certainly negotiate, but when it comes down to it, we’ve given them authority over us in certain settings and circumstances, and thus given them permission to tell us to do things. However, outside of situations like the two examples, we see plenty of telling going on, and it works. The issue is that it only works so many times. Everybody’s got their limit, and when it’s reached, that’s it. Being told all the time can frustrate us, because it sidelines our interests.
With these definitions, I think it’s clear why confusing or misusing the two can have bad results. I recall an employer asking me if I could pick up some overtime. Having plans, I declined, because they had asked instead of instructed. My manager was upset, because she had meant it as an order, but it wasn’t within her power to give that order. Similarly, imagine if your friends told you to do things instead of asking you. It’s fine now and again, sometimes I need to get dragged out of my house to see other humans, but if it happened continually, how would it feel?
I think the other really important thing about asking and telling is the idea that we can’t go back from telling. If we tell somebody to do something, we can’t then ask them. We can’t take their choice away, and then give it back, because it’s not a meaningful choice then. We were already prepared to remove it. So while we can escalate from asking to telling, there’s no going back from telling. Telling someone and then asking them is making an offer they can’t refuse, Marlon Brando style, and that creates the exact same kind of pressure.
These aren’t the only means of getting people to do things that we want them to. We could force them, either physically or by exerting leverage, or convince them, by using sound reasons or rhetoric. We can petition others to implement one of these on our behalf (as seen in government or the fifth grade). But I think asking and telling seem to be the most often conflated, and I feel like we often do so without understanding the consequences it can have on our relationships. If we value people and our relationships with them, then we might want to value their autonomy over their ability to do what we say, and for the most part I think we do. In any instance we can ask or tell, but I feel like it’s important to be aware of which one we’re doing, and which one we’re better off doing. What do you think? Is it just me? What experiences have you had with this? As always, I await your comments.