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August 12, 2010

Asking without asking

Yesterday I wrote about a woman who asked. Today I will write about one who didn't. I will also insert an unrelated picture of a sleeping puppy and my two red shoes because, Why not.

This post is on the long side, by the way, but it all adds up to a grand thesis about women and asking in the workplace... so I hope you'll sit back, plop your laptop somewhere cozy and join me for this ribald tale.


"I need you to do something for me."

This is how Dr. Fritz, a man who has lived in his 60-something years more that most people do in twice as many, approached me one day at a rainforest research station where the group was staying on my recent trip to Ecuador.

"...what?" I asked, intrigued, both because of the way he said it and because most of the things this environmental crusader (and serial entrepreneur and internet innovator and family man and watercolor painter and nuclear scientist and child literacy expert and stealth philanthropist) says are intriguing.

"I need you to find out if Andira has any messages for Djay," he said.

"Messages..." I repeated, confused.

Dr. Fritz giving me the backstory. The place we were staying at was staffed by Andira and her family, who have worked there for decades. Djay is Dr. Fritz's youngest son (and a friend of mine). He traveled there a few years earlier and struck up a friendship with Andira and her family. Over time, they started exchanging confidences and Andira started confessing that she could use a little money, a little more time off. It wasn't an ask per se -- rather, Djay coaxed the info out of her.

"So you need to get in there, hang out and find out if they have any secret messages. Like, I dunno, maybe they'll say they need money for an operation or something, or they can't cover their kids' tuition, or someone's car got smashed, or they're having some kind of conflict with their boss. They're scared to talk to their boss about this stuff, but we need to find out if they have any needs or complaints, so we can help out."

"Roger that. I'm the go between. Matahari. I'll do what I can to get the scoop on the d-l."

A few hours later I went into the kitchen, where Andira and her mom were spooning out portions of a tremendously moist tres leches cake destined for our dinner. I sat down at the big table, next to her.

"I just wanted to come and see what you're up to," I said. "That looks delicious."

"Oh, hi! Nice to meet you! Welcome to Ecuador!" she said.

We exchanged niceties and then, when no one was looking, I leaned in and whispered: "Do you have any messages for Djay?"

"Oh, yes! Tell him we miss him and we can't wait to see him again."

"Ok, great. Anything else?"

"Tell him he's a super guy and we really loved meeting him last time."

"Ok. Anything about you? Your family? Anything you need to tell him?"

"We're all doing well."

That was that.

I reporting my findings to Dr. Fritz: "I got nothing. No message, no request, no complaint. Nada."

"You have to try harder, La Roxy. Trust me. There is always something we can do to help. Just ask them to write a letter to Djay, and they'll put whatever concerns or need they have in that letter. We'll read the letter and give them whatever they need."

"We'll read the letter?"

"It's not private -- she'll send her request in an unsealed envelope so we can read it. It won't be a personal note: just the concerns or complaints she's afraid to air to her boss."


That evening, as I was sitting in the hammock reading, Andira walked by and I stopped her.

"If you have any messages for Djay, I can give them to him. Like, if there's something you want to say. Privately. You can write a note, and I'll make sure he gets it. If you are having any concerns or problems, he will receive your special message." Wink wink.

"Great! I will write him a note right away."

She disappeared, returned with an open envelope and I thought, "Bingo -- unsealed. She knows the deal."

Back in my room that night, feeling like a thief, I slid the note out of its envelope and unfolded it. It was the warmest letter you could imagine, written with thick blue ink, telling Djay how much the entire family misses him, how great it was to meet him and inviting back to Ecuador.

But where were the confessions of needing money for cancer treatments and root canals and other family tragedies? Where was the secret message??

Some people, it dawned on me, just won't ask. They're not used to it, they're not comfortable, they're scared, it doesn't dawn on them. Maybe because she was a woman, maybe because it's not cultural (yesterday's anecdote was too small a sample base to draw any generalizations), maybe because of the particularly dynamic she has with her boss.

Here's what I did. I sat down with Andira and talked to her. We talked for two hours, about life, our backgrounds, school in Ecuador and America, our jobs, our dreams. And over the course of the conversation, eventually it became clear what she needed: a new computer for her daughter, who was starting college. In the U.S., a netbook is $300. In Ecuador, it would be more than double, and the most basic laptop is more than $1,200. There was my message. She didn't ask, didn't even hint she wanted help, but encoded in the story of her life was my answer, loud and clear.

I reported this to Dr. Fritz and it's as good as done: The girl will get a new netbook.

The contrast between these two women -- the one from yesterday's post pulling me aside to ask for clothes and giggling shyly, and the other refusing to ask despite every opportunity -- is still twisting around in my brain.

There are ways of asking without asking, I realize. It's the old asker/guesser dialectic, written about brilliantly in the Guardian. If you you say "My back hurts" to your fiance, he'll give you a massage. If you say, "My computer broke down and it's six month's salary to buy a new one" to the right person, you'll get a new one. If you say, "Gee, the customer service sucks" to the right manager, you'll get a free coffee. A well-placed assertion is twice as valuable as an asking. Who you target, and the context, is as important as what you say. Plus, by stating rather than asking, and letting the other party connect the dots, you don't use up your "credit" in the same way as you would asking.

Wait a minute. Am I contradicting the entire mission of The Daily Asker? Hasn't my mission for the past two years been to hint rarely and ask explicitly, and to help others do the same?

Indeed it has been, and I remain a staunch advocate for asking. But over time, with ever new interaction, new possibilities are unfolding. Hinting isn't bad -- if it's a strategy rather than your only resort. Asking isn't the only tool, and it's the wrong tool if it doesn't get results.

The aim is to choose strategies and exert control over the outcome. What works best -- asking or hinting or guessing? For seasoned askers, these are all options. The problem is when you have no choice but to hint, through guarded conversations with passers by. When that's your only resort.

For every woman like me and, I hope, like you, dear reader -- for every asker -- there are probably 300 like the Andira. They're in our offices, in our families, in our schools. They're the ones who never complain or speak up, seek credit or promotions or recognition -- they're scared, they're uninformed, they assume they're unworthy. They are who we were before we opened our mouths and asked.

To conclude this post, I'm not asking but exhorting you to be aware of the non-askers out there and do the following. Be receptive to whatever needs they may not be expressing. If you're in a position to counsel them, encourage them to ask and reward their courage generously when their time comes.
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