Monday, September 07, 2009

Do You Want To… How To Ask People To Do Things

Do you ever stop and think about the way you make requests of other people? I find that I get really annoyed over the way that I’m asked to do things. I know that the person asking is trying to be polite, but let’s stop and think about how this sounds.

Do you want to…?

About 3 jobs ago, I worked a job in support for software development. I worked at a large development site. As the equipment being developed there progressed, some new procedures were created. At one point, one hard drive would hold several different loads, but I guess for configuration control purposes, it was decided that each load being tested had to be maintained on a different hard drive. Then for each load, suddenly we had to maintain separate hard drives for engineering loads and for QA loads. This led to excessive swapping out of hard drives, and my office was tasked with this chore. I hated it. It took a long time and wasn’t pleasant work. The hard drives were located in consoles and the access was on the floor. We had to check out all the drives, cart them to the rooms, shut down the consoles, pull out the old drives, insert the new drives, and reinitialize all the consoles. We had to scoot along on the floor and I often banged my head on keyboard tray of the consoles. Because the engineers we supported often weren’t capable of planning, we had to do this several times a day. They’d often want to load up one set of drives to run for 10 minutes, then switch to the other to run for 10 minutes. It sucked.

One day, we had a request to change over. My supervisor looked at me and asked “Do you want to switch the drives over?” I stopped for a minute and thought about that. I honestly didn’t hear an order. I didn’t even hear a request. What I heard was my supervisor asking me about my preferences. I answered honestly. “No”.

His jaw dropped. Seriously, the expression on his face would have been worth getting fired over. I gave it a second or to to sit in. I realized that he probably didn’t think about HOW he asked me to do something. He probably thought he was being nice. But in truth, I was far more annoyed by the way he asked me to do something than if he’d just given me an order like we were both still in the Navy. After his jaw started to come up, I told him “No, I don’t want to swap the drives out, but if you ask me to do it, I will. You asked me if I wanted to do it, not if I would do it.”

You can get me…

This is one of my wife’s favorite ways to ask me to do something. “I bought 16 tons of flour at Sam’s. You can carry it in from the car.” My wife also likes to ask if I “want” to do something, as in “Do you want to carry 16 tons of crap from my last run to the store in from the car?”, but I’m slowly teaching her that approach doesn’t work with me. My wife and I, just today, had a discussion over this when she told me “You can get me what’s in the microwave.” I was still just a little annoyed from “You can clear the table after lunch”.

What’s the point to this blog post?

Think about HOW you ask or tell people to do things. You’re not likely to deal with a wise-ass like me, but just in case you end up as my boss, just think about it. Honestly, I don’t think you’re being polite by asking me if I “want” to do a task, or notifying me that I’ve been bestowed with the distinct honor of being able to perform the task. Personally, I think it’s pretentious if not downright rude. “You can clean up the mess I made” seems like I’m being treated like a servant, not as an equal or as a professional. “Do you want to” makes you look like a wuss in my eyes. It tells me that you don’t have the courage to simply tell me to do something.

If you routinely have to tell people to perform tasks, just do it. Don’t pussyfoot around like a weak-minded fool. It’s annoying.

Of course, there's always the polite request, which is what I believe most people are after. "Can you help me...?" or "Would you please?" "Can you please?" There is nothing wrong with making a polite request. I'm just saying in this post that I find "Do you want to" and "You can do this" to be rude and pretentious.

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