The less you need a favor, the more likely I am to do one for you

Mentos_FruitPeople email me all the time asking me to read their work. And I almost always say ‘Yes’ and then drag my feet on it for months upon months upon months. I usually get to it, but sometimes only after it’s literally been an entire year. However, I have one friend who I usually respond to within a month whenever they ask me to read anything.

Why? What’s the difference? It’s not the closeness of our relationship. Although I have come to really like this person, I haven’t physically seen them since 2006, and for most of the intervening time, we haven’t even talked. Nor is it a question of talent. Although my friend is extremely talented, I have other friends who are great writers and who sometimes ask me for help.

No, the difference is that my friend doesn’t need my help. She has many admirers and many potential readers. She’s very well-published, and her book (the one I’ve been reading) has already sold. When she asks me for help, it feels like an honor, and it makes me anxious to help.

Which I find to be a little bit sick. Basically I’m saying that I’m most likely to help people who don’t need my help.

This is very common, though, and very human. Whenever someone is young and hot and their stock is rising, you’ll see all kinds of people offering to hook them up or invite them places or put them in touch with people. But if they exact same person (with the exact same amount of talent) was unknown and on the outside, no one would do anything for them.

It’s tempting to say that this is self-serving behavior, but it’s not quite that. I don’t expect my friend to do anything concrete for me. It’s more a matter of status and ego. When I help someone who has social status, then I can feel some of that status redound onto you. It’s entirely possible that no one else can feel or see that invisible transference of status. In most cases, it’s something that’s only happening inside my own head, but that’s what’s going on. Whereas if I help someone who has less social status, then I don’t get that extra burst of self-importance, and it all feels less worthwhile.

I can see this behavior in other people, too. It’s why I never ask for help from someone unless I also know someone else who I can ask to do the same thing. I know that the moment you ask someone for something that they know you can’t get from anyone else, then you put yourself in a subservient position to them. And, in many cases, people will consciously or unconsciously use that subservience to toy with you and reject you, as a way of making themselves feel more important. I guess I shouldn’t judge though, because, like I said, I do the same things. But I hate it. Sometimes I look at the way we organize ourselves, and the whole thing just feels so wearisome.

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