Recent Posts

May 24, 2010

Even when it's an afterthought, ask!

Thursday evening, I made plans to dine with my cousin. Before heading over to the restaurant (a pizzeria that was nothing to write home, er, blog about) Eau and I stopped by the Shakespeare Theater Company in Chinatown to see what was playing that night.

Corneille’s “The Liar,” in a new translation, was one of the options. His name evokes memories of the dour dramas I studied in high school and college. I knew he'd written comedies, but I never had the pleasure of seeing one.

A brochure said tickets start at $36. It was an acceptable splurge for both Eau and I, and my cousin, consulted with a quick phone call, was on board. I approached the box office, took out my credit card and was about to say, “Three tickets for The Liar tonight, please,” when after a split second’s hesitation, I redirected.

“We’d like tickets for the Liar, for tonight at 8. But do you have rush tickets or youth prices?”

“I can do rush tickets for you. You’re all under 36, right?”


“Then it’s $10 a ticket.”

“Wow! Thanks!”

Certainly, that’s not an “asking” in the ambitious sense of the term. No negotiation, no persuasion, no dastardly feats attempted. But if I hadn’t asked about my options, I firmly believe he wouldn’t have volunteered that information.

The last ditch request for a better deal even – along the lines of “Any discounts I don’t know about?” “Can you do any better on this price?” and so on – is an impulse that was cultivated during that year of daily asking, when I was forced to come up with something, anything, for the project. Time and again I saw cashiers reach for coupons behind their registers, reveal deals or promotions I had no clue existed, or find simple but effective ways to help me save a few bucks. That’s how I got one of my biggest monetary victories last year: 2 vouchers on United, plus hotel and dinner, after I asked to be put on the volunteer list for giving up a flight I didn’t want anyway.

Even more fundamentally than customizing deals or getting special treatment, isn’t asking about making sure you’re getting what you’re entitled to? An opportunity being presented to others. A better salary. Unadvertised but available perks.

Available, that is, to those who ask.

[image credit]

Two retail coups in Kensington, Maryland

Kensington, Maryland, where my post-waffle trip with Eau continued on Wednesday, has a a row of great antique shops. In the first very one I spotted two books. One was a dictionary of art criticism terms for $3, the other was a book written in the early 1900s called "How to listen to music," for $8. The former seemed like a useful reference, and the latter was an adorable, antiquated document.

A selected sentence: "The highest form of musical composition is the symphony. This stands in contrast to a style of music that is increasingly appreciated. We name this style popular music," The italicized popular made me smile. Like you'd say umami or some other newfangled or imported concoction.

Had to have it.

I approached the register and tried the ol' round number method.

"Hi!" I said and smiled.

"Hi," she answered.

"I'd like to buy these books, but could I get both for $10?"

"Yes, that's fine," the woman answered. "Oh, this book?" she began when she saw the dark green hardcover with gold lettering of the music book. "I'm so glad you're buying this. Someone was just in here and wanted to buy it, to cut it up and use for crafts."

"Crafts?" I asked, horrified. (Nothing against crafts, but not with cute books written in 1908 that someone might one day snatch up and read...)

"Yes. They cut up books and use them in scrapbook projects."


"It's such a cute book. I'm glad they didn't buy it and tear it up."

"Me too!" I answered.

A few stores down, my eyes fell on a pair of earrings. Two thin bands of gold were holding together a pair of seed pearls and drop shaped amethysts. They were the first thing I saw in the store, and they gave me an idea.

My dad and stepmom told me a few weeks ago they wanted to get me a graduation present -- jewelry, in general, and a rather expensive form thereof, to be specific -- and checked first if there was anything else I preferred. I told them the fact they're coming to Boston is my present and this isn't the time for extravagant purchases, but Dad gave me the "Ok, honey, of course, no problem," answer, which meant one thing: He was going to proceed as planned.

But if I spotted something I loved, and something I knew was in his budget, that would be the best of both worlds.

The earrings were $250, marked down from $300.

My target was considerably lower.

I glanced at Eau, who I'm positive could bargain in her sleep, and on cue she started talking: "We'd like to buy these earrings as a present for someone who just finished a Ph.D., but--"

I picked up there: "But $250 is really over my budget."

"These really are lovely," the woman -- slight British lilt, deliberate, distinguished -- replied. "How much would you like to spend?"

"I'll be totally honest. A lot less than the pricetag, unfortunately."

"Well, tell me. I'll see what I can do," the woman said. "These have seen sitting here for a while, and they really are pretty."

"They are! Ok. Then, I'll just say it. $125," I said.

Eau continued: "She's been working on her doctorate for 8 years, and she finished literally a few days ago. These earrings would be a gift -- a treasure to commemorate her graduation years to come."

"I see," the woman answered. "Eight years is a long time. What was the doctorate in?"

"Comparative literature," I answered.

"Interesting. And what is the career plan, after graduation? Teaching?"

"Writing," I said.

"I see," she answered, less convinced. "Well, I will call the owner and see what she says."

"Thank you!"

She murmured a few words into the receiver and turned to me with a counteroffer.

"She says the lowest she can do is $175."

I countered that I'd like $175 even -- no tax. Especially since I was paying cash.

The owner agreed.

In all, saved $76!

And I left the store with a pair of earrings from the turn of the last century which I will wear the day my grandkids get their doctorates. Hmm... What will people be studying in 2070? A few dissertations I'd love to see:

"Toward a statistical understanding of the time travel habits of infants."

"Peanuts: How a small beige legume brought peace and goodwill to mankind."

"Lunarian communities and the emigration equation: Three case studies"

"How a free press turned Latvia into the 21st century superpower."

"Remember cancer? Hierarchies of epidemiology at the CDC before the Fritzaur Fungus eradicated all disease."

"Askologia: Revisiting La Roxy's Italian period, 2030 to 2061."

What would be your ideal dissertation topic for 2070??


[image credit]


I've been putting off posting only because I have so much to tell... and so little time!

Today I left D.C., and I'm sitting in a cafe in Philly. My stirrer, which I used to mix a few grains of sugar into my macchiato, is standing up vertically in the stiff foam. I'm about to take my first sip, but first, a hello.

Asking reports to come, and a few reflections on my stay in the beltway.

Check back in 20 minutes or so!

[image credit]

May 21, 2010

Can I buy your mug, Waffle House?

I have a longstanding love affair with Waffle House. The pictures above are from a road trip in 2005, at which point my relationship with this culinary institution was a tender 2 years old. I think the second photo in particular captures the optimal nook-and-cranniness of the wheat bread and beef patty, into which the square of American cheese has melted with perfect cremosity. Note, in particular, how the cheese's glistening yellow molecules stand in subtle counterpoint to the crunchy, golden hues of the butter-toasted bread, offset by the darker beef and a hint of grilled onion in the left foreground.

That's quality.

The first time I went to Waffle House was in 2003, also on a roadtrip. I was heading to Boston from Texas, with La Sorella as copilot and head troublemaker. We had just picked up my car, the same Nissan I drive today, from our dad, and we were driving it to Boston. There it would live for the next five years, collecting hundreds of parking tickets for ferrying me those five blocks between my apartment and campus on snowy mornings. I know, I know. Californians.

But on that trip, all we had before us was the open road in early August, hundreds of Waffle Houses to discover and the sweet exhilaration of possibility.

We hit our first one in Alabama.

I fell fast, and hard.

At first it was the waffles that got me: Golden and crispy, with a batter more consistent, less airy, that I would have thought I'd like. Love is gentle, love is kind. Love teaches you new things about yourself.

By the third or fourth Waffle House of the trip, I had switched to the patty melt, and I've never looked back.

In 2005, I drove cross country, from California to Boston, with Mr. A. We made the requisite stops, and on one such visit I snapped the photos above. I also waxed poetic to the waitress about their patty melts and she let me take home a coffee mug. I didn't even ask!

It's been years since I've had the privilege of dining there. But on this D.C. romp, I took a few days off to seek refuge in the rural enclaves of the Virginias.

Eau, my D.C. hostess, drove, and close to midnight we spotted it: a Waffle House, in [city name redacted to protect all parties; reasons will become clear below].

The patty melt was so good I ordered another. The coffee was watery and fragrant and diner-perfect. The scenery was so satisfying, as were the smells. And the company was exquisite.

As Eau and I ate, an idea occurred to me. La Sorella. She had eyed my mug, she had even possibly coveted it. What if I could get one for her, too?

Thus did I ask the waitress:

"So, I have a confession. I am obsessed with Waffle House, and my sister is too. She lives on the West Coast and I know she would loooove a mug. Do you think I could, like, buy one? How much do you think is fair. $5? $10?"

The waitress looked enchanted.

"I can't sell it, I wouldn't know how to ring it up, but," and here she lowered her voice, "why don't you just take it? I didn't tell you that. But seriously, during the bar rush every night, salt and pepper shakers disappear... the mug would not be missed."


"Yes. I'll just rinse it out and bring it back for you."

She did one better: let me finish my coffee in the mug I was using and returned with a clean specimen, discretely wrapped in paper and tucked inside a Waffle House plastic baggie.

Some would call that shoplifting, embezzlement, a combo of the two. I call it a souvenir. And I shall repay the value of that mug, many times over. With this blog post, which I hope sends other patty melt-o-philes to the House's warm embrace. And with my eternal devotion.

[images (c) The Daily Asker]

May 19, 2010

Seven Day Asking Challenge

Here is the challenge I gave the Capitol askers.

Every day for one week, ask for something you wouldn't have otherwise. Specifically, tick off each of these categories, in any order you'd like to:

--ask for something you know you'll get
--ask for something you definitely won't get
--ask for something you want
--ask for something you need
--ask for something totally fun and impractical
--ask for something that would make your life easier
--ask for something that helps someone else

I invite you, gentle reader, to join this game. Starting sometime in the next few days, try each of these -- in any order you want -- for one whole week.

Write back and let us know what you felt before starting, what you discovered along the way, what was hard, what was easy, and anything else you'd like to share!

Curiously yours,

La Roxy

[image source]

La Roxy in The Capitol

A few months ago, I got this intriguing email:
Hi Roxy,

I've been reading your blog and I'm fascinated by the data you've uncovered. Have you considered turning your experience into a presentation?

I am an aide to a Congressman and [a member of] a group dedicated to promoting the ranks of women among legislative staff in the U.S. Capitol. Our members are involved in negotiations affecting not just their own personal gain, but often deal in public policy decisions as well. As such, we have a real interest in exploring how people react to women as negotiators and, well, "askers."

So here's my ask for the day: If you are ever in Washington, DC, would you consider speaking to our group about your experiences and what you've uncovered? We couldn't pay for airfare, but we could put you up in a [...] guest room and provide a meal or two.

Thanks for your consideration,

A Reader
Which brings us to Monday at noon, when I found myself in a room in the U.S. Capitol surrounded by a group of advanced askers, talking to them about the issue I most care about: women and negotiation.

What's your idea of heaven? This may just be mine.

These women work as congressional aides, which means that a large part of their job involves researching issues, attending meetings and making policy recommendations on behalf of various individuals, groups and lobbyists. That also means they spend all day asking and being asked. For favors, information, advocacy, contributions, collaborations, promises, assurances and more -- with sprinkes, please.

For our session, their concerns were focused on two particular questions: How to make sure they are compensated fairly, and how to be better negotiators when brokering the kinds of agreements that are their daily bread.

I gave them ideas, answered their questions (still owe you one about scoring discounts -- stay tuned for a post on that subject, sometime in the next week) and asked them questions back. At the end of the meeting, I gave them an asking challenge. I'll post it on the next page and invite you to join.

All in all, I loved every minute of my first speaking engagement as The Daily Asker! And I hope they did too!? ;)

If you'd like me to come talk to your group, don't hesitate to get in touch. Write to me thedailyasker at gmail dot com.

[image credit]

May 18, 2010

Can I ride your segway?

I asked this to the police officer standing somewhere in D.C.

He invited me to step on. The wind was blowing. The sun was shining. And I was about to get away when he called for backup!!!

Here is the best of our photo shoot, art directed by La Sorella.

Thanks, Officer Anonymous!

(Contrast that to this episode, an early asking.)

May 17, 2010

Would squatting please her magesty?

This weekend, I experienced three askings I simply must recount.

On Friday afternoon I headed to Union Station to meet La Sorella, who was coming into D.C. for the weekend. Our goal was to catch up over dinner, see some friends at brunch, recover with a relaxing dinner, say goodbye over lunch -- and walk it all off at the museums.

My cell phone was almost out of batteries and I had 10 minutes to kill, so I ducked into a bookstore, made a purchase and asked if I could plug in my phone for a while.

"I'm waiting for my sister to get here and if my phone is dead we won't be able to connect," I explained.

Seemed reasonable to me -- wasn't bothering anyone, the outlet was in an empty corner and the total cost to them would be a few cents. Should be ok, right?

But the people at the register all seemed very nervous at this request.

"You can, but not for long," one employee finally answered. "It's just that my manager wouldn't approve."

"Ok, don't worry -- if your manager tells me to leave I'll just say I did it without anyone's permission. I won't get you in trouble, I promise!"

They laughed, relieved, and I sat down next to the outlet (as there were no chairs nearby) reading my new book and wondering who this manager was.

I soon found out.

"Miss, you cannot sit on the ground."

"Excuse me?" I looked up from my book.

"You have to have your feet on the ground," she said. "I can't have you sitting like that." I looked at my crossed legs, the blue shoed feet peeking out from under the sweater bunched into my lap, and looked back up at her.

"Is it ok if I squat?"

Another customer walked up to her and asked for help finding a book.

Before she could answer me, the phone rang. La Sorella's train arrived and she was walking my way.

May 16, 2010

Asking and Guessing: 5 pointers

Last night I wrote about asking and guessing as behaviors rather than character types. To recap, some people have articulated a difference in how people go about requesting what they want. Some ask outright, and others guess, meaning they hint at what they'd like and hope the other side responds with a yes. Which is ruder? Which is more effective? As long as we remember these are culturally determined, shaped by family background, gender and the like, we can train and reshape either tendency to our advantage. Rather than "being an Asker" or "being a Guesser," I hope I use each as a purely strategic behavior I can adopt on a case by case basis. Speaking of strategy, here are those tips I promised.

1) Want to know if you should ask outright or subtly guess? Be empathetic.

Empathy, as I've written about before (here and here), is a big part of asking or negotiating. If you can put yourself in the other side's shoes, you have valuable info about how they might react and why they might object. You're also more likely to be able to devise a win-win solution (or the closest thing possible). What's not to like about that?

In this case of deciding whether it's best to ask for something outright or merely hint about it, if you're worried if it's a good idea to ask, ask yourself first: Would you find it terrible if someone asked you for a quarter to feed your meter? or for help revising a powerpoint before Monday's big meeting when the department's reputation is on the line? or for help moving 20 boxes of books next weekend?

If you can anticipate what approach the other side tends to use, or what approach a certain situation warrants, you're more likely to know whether to ask or guess, and how to do each effectively.

It's not foolproof, but empathy can be a useful guideline.

2) Spell things out.

If you're dealing with "a Guesser" (i.e. someone who only asks or expects to be asked if "yes" is a guarantee),
sometimes it helps to find common ground from the start:

"I realize this may seem forward, but I'm sure you'll say no if you're not comfortable -- so here's my request: Could you please tickle my toes with this feather duster?"

3) Don't underestimate the ask-guess.

There are ways to ask without imposing or demanding -- ways that leave a comfortable way out, but still articulate the request. As long as you're sincere in your desire not to impose or bother, but still explicitly pronounce the question, even potential Guessers don't mind. (So I've found. And hey, if they do mind and you've been courteous, that's their problem.)

An example I just made up:

"Dear Ringo, I was wondering if I could borrow you car next Friday. I need to go to the West End to pick up a drum set I found on Craigslist and I can't carry it back on my bike. Please don't hesitate to say no. If you're not comfortable or it's inconvenient or whatever, I can always try someone else or rent a car. But if it works out, I'd be really grateful. And I'd fill up the tank before returning it. Anyway, just thought I'd ask. Thanks and have a great weekend!"

Yes this is an outright ask -- no hinting or nudging here. But by saying you can find a rental or borrow a car from someone else, you're offering an easy out. No pressure to say yes. Merely a compelling reason, and the reasonable/responsible promise to refill the tank.

4) If you really want something, ask!

You could sit around a lifetime wondering if it's appropriate to ask. That's what many women do, according to Women Don't Ask -- and that's why they don't get the raises, promotions and benefits their male peers do.
So feel free to tiptoe around issues of delicacy and decorum. But when it comes to your moral, professional or financial bottom line, ASK.

5) If you do ask, answer in kind.

Related to empathy is reciprocity. One is preemptive consideration for the other party, the other comes after the fact.

If you're regularly asking other people -- and I hope you are! -- then it's only fair to be receptive to asking. You don't want to be (or be known as) that annoying hack who always seeks referrals but never lifts a finger to recommend anyone else. If you're always stealing bites off your sister's plate and borrowing her scarves, be sure she knows your plate and closet are fair game, as well. Or treat her to a mani-pedi one of these days, just because. ;)

I'm sure you can take it from here.


May 14, 2010

An Asker and a Guesser walk into a bar...

An Asker and a Guesser walk into a bar. The Guesser tells the bartender, "One beer, please." The Asker asks the Guesser, "And what will you have?"

A debate is raging in the blogosphere thanks to this column by Oliver Burkeman. He picked up on a thread by this woman, which I'm excerpting here:
In some families, you grow up with the expectation that it's OK to ask for anything at all, but you gotta realize you might get no for an answer. This is Ask Culture.

In Guess Culture, you avoid putting a request into words unless you're pretty sure the answer will be yes. Guess Culture depends on a tight net of shared expectations. A key skill is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won't even have to make the request directly; you'll get an offer. Even then, the offer may be genuine or pro forma; it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept.

All kinds of problems spring up around the edges. If you're a Guess Culture person -- and you obviously are -- then unwelcome requests from Ask Culture people seem presumptuous and out of line, and you're likely to feel angry, uncomfortable, and manipulated.

If you're an Ask Culture person, Guess Culture behavior can seem incomprehensible, inconsistent, and rife with passive aggression.
Burkeman finds the situation not entirely hopeless:
Self-help seeks to make us all Askers, training us to both ask and refuse with relish; the mediation expert William Ury recommends memorising "anchor phrases" such as "that doesn't work for me". But Guessers can take solace in logic: in many social situations (though perhaps not at work) the very fact that you're receiving an anxiety-inducing request is proof the person asking is an Asker. He or she is half-expecting you'll say no, and has no inkling of the torture you're experiencing. So say no, and see what happens. Nothing will.
The debate is now making the rounds in the Atlantic, Mother Jones, The New Republic, and more. Are you an Asker or a Guesser? Do you ask for things when you need/want them, or do you only make requests when you're sure they won't be imposing on the other party and the other party will in fact acquiesce?

And how do you deal with people of the other type?

Here is where I stand:

When push comes to shove, I am certainly an Asker. When in doubt, I will ask. When I was asking daily, if thought the answer might be no, at times I changed my approach in order get what I wanted, but I rarely shied away. In fact, asking daily allowed me to gain an intellectual and emotional distance from the outcome, because even if I got a "no," it was all for the good of the experiment.

After the year of daily asking -- and doubtless because of it -- I kept that attitude of "who cares if I fail!? At least I tried and settled the uncertainty by articulating my request."

Now that I'm more selective in my asking -- I don't do it daily, and the stakes are often higher -- I aspire to be an Asker who knows when to guess and a Guesser who knows when to ask. I want to use both strategies as precisely that -- strategies!

So many of the voices blogging about this are framing the debate as Askers vs Guessers, as if these were some immutable categories people were dropped into as infants by some divine toga wearing shepherd. Certainly, some people are stuck in one of those modes, but the optimal -- and perfectly feasible -- strategy is to be flexible and use both asking and guessing, as verbs, that is, to your advantage. So I encourage you, dear reader, to step back and consider this instead: To get the best outcome, when should I ask, and when should I guess?

In the next post, I'll offer 5 ways to refine both of these strategies.

But first, what's your take: Do you ask or guess? Do you wish you did more of one or the other?

Overheard in the grad student lounge...

I'm in D.C. for a week to see friends and explore a city I keep meaning to visit. More on that, soon. But first, a short illustrative anecdote.

When I was back on campus, I was sitting in the grad student lounge of my department. A bunch of people were there working, and at one point someone opened a window (ok, it was me) to let in a gust of cool air. It was really cold outside -- in the low 50s -- but this was much needed air, I assure you, since the room felt like no one had opened a window since 2006.

A woman in the room told the friend sitting across from her: "It's so cold in here. I'm gonna go grab my scarf from next door."

She left and returned with a scarf.

Two minutes later, she told her friend: "God, it's cold in here. I'm going to find a different room. My fingers are freezing, I can't type."

She packed up her things and left.

A minute after she left, her friend turned to everyone else in the room and he asked, "Does anyone mind if I close the window? It is kind of cold in here."

The room had meanwhile aired out. No one minded. The window was closed.

The non-asker ended up in some other room, perhaps grumbling at the open window or window opener. The asker ended up in a warm room, sitting where he pleased. I almost hate it that a man and a woman are the protagonists -- it's almost too simple, to tempting to reduce this to a gender thing!

To make it more than a gender thing, the next post rephrases the question along different terms: asking versus guessing.

May 07, 2010



Dissertation written, revised, edited and approved!!!!

With three golden signatures, one from each of my committee members, on the critical Dissertation Approval Form!!!!!!!!!

Thank you, dear readers, for your encouraging comments and notes back in December. You motivated me when I most needed it, and for that gesture, for your patience and for your continued support throughout this graduate school journey, you get a special line in my acknowledgements, along with my sincere gratitude.

So... I just realized this is my last Friday as a student. I'm now back on campus in Boston, staying with friends. I'll be here until Commencement (with detours up and down the east coast to see people). That's right: Come late May I'll don the funny hat, smile for the birdie. I was ready to skip it, but Mr. A told me I had no choice in the matter. And when Mr. A asks for something, it's very hard for me to say no.

My friends, this evening, made pasta and fresh mushroom-cherry tomato sauce (both from scratch, mmmm) and we watched a movie.

On Tuesday I hand the whole thing in to to the registrar.

And then I'm getting drunk.

Next on my list: everything I've been putting off for months and years like reading mystery novels, writing, writing, writing (stuff that requires no footnotes, like blog posts and short stories and handwritten letters and lists of movies I'm going to see), learning to bake bread, getting back to the business I just launched, learning a new language, dancing tango regularly, riding our bikes along the boardwalk, working my way through that massive stack of magazines with a Meadow Mule by my side and my cell phone off, making a website for my mom, going to museums again, learning about investing in general and specific, watching some TED talks, making the duck and portobello lasagna I set my eye on in 2006 and chicken pot pie and tom kha soup and pizza dough fritters, sleeping on various couches in various cities in various countries, working my butt off for fun and profit, roadtripping through the South, trying to take photographs like these, churning butter in Amish country with my little sister, visiting my dad in Texas and actually spending time with him (last time I went was a month before this deadline so you can guess how that went), eating tons of pinkberry, buying paints and using them, cleaning out my closet and making a trip to Goodwill, playing some piano, recording stories from my grandmother for my future grandchildren, getting something for friend who has a new baby from my other friend who has a new store, watching Hulu on weekends and taking a break to work (and not the opposite), watching season one of The Wire since everyone tells me I have to, digitizing all those VHS cassettes and giving them to the fam, having a Katherine Hepburn movie marathon, eating brunch -- brunch! -- and tracking down a paycheck from 2008 I never received, sewing on all the fallen buttons that I've stashed in the button box, sleeping in until 2, selling a few bookcases on Craigslist, buying a few books on Amazon, going back to Italy, walking or biking everywhere in my neighborhood instead of driving because I'm in no rush to get there, infusing some vodka with tiny tasty red things, going hiking somewhere lush, staying in a cabin for two whole weeks and sitting on its deck and outlining a novel I'll know never write while secretly hoping I might, fixing that little tear on the slipcover of my armchair I haven't had time to think about until now, regularly checking and probably indulging a little too often in Gilt, taking flamenco lessons again, spending the morning at my favorite oceanfront cafe and watching the waves crash, and finally finally finally not having a deadline tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow