Beyond Small Talk: Giving and Asking for Help

by Julie Pham

Note: Today marks the start of a new column by Julie Pham, a near Seattle native (immigrated from Vietnam when she was two-months-old), and a resident of the International District. The South Seattle Emerald invited Julie to contribute a monthly column in order to share the unique perspective she has as someone who builds bridges and connections across many different Seattle communities.

I get impatient with small talk. So, I go straight to probing. It makes some people uncomfortable. Fortunately, my career path always provided a  license to ask questions. I probed into the past to build oral histories while working as a trained historian. I interviewed sources as a journalist to craft my stories. Nowadays, I still ask a lot of questions in my work at the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), the state’s unifying voice of the tech industry. The questions I ask these days are less aimed at fact gathering and more focused on building trust across tech and non-tech communities.

I try my best not to come in with assumptions. But I’m a human with a preconceived bias. I love it when I ask a question that can make someone pause. Better yet is when I’m given an answer I didn’t expect and my assumptions are proven wrong. What I love the most is how the power of a question can grant someone permission to share something that might have otherwise been withheld.

Last winter, WTIA piloted a volunteer program called _ion to bring together individuals working in tech, government, and community-based organizations. These teams of strangers agreed to collaborate for six months and create a solution addressing a challenge facing the community at large.

For this unlikely collaboration to be successful, we knew we had to build trust, and we had to do so quickly. With just six months together, I decided to speed up this trust-building process by starting each team meeting by asking a personal, probing question. The team members quickly came to expect and enjoy what many called an intimate story sharing experience they weren’t getting anywhere else in their professional or personal lives.

Each month, my column “Beyond Small Talk” will focus on a different trust-building question I asked during an  _ion meeting. These questions cut across divisions of industries, class, race and culture. In my column I’ll reflect behind, and beyond the question — and with the permission of   _ion team members, I’ll share their answers.  

I hope you will ask the questions I pose of yourself, and those in your personal and professional life, too. I invite you to share highlights from those conversations in the comments section of the South Seattle Emerald.

Here is the first question:

When was the last time someone who was not your relative asked you for help in the form of something with monetary value? When was the last time you asked someone else who was not a relative for help in the form of something with monetary value?

To clarify, a partner or significant other does not count if you consider him or her as close as a relative. Also, the question applies only to personal settings, so asking a banker for a business loan would not qualify.

The hesitation to ask for help

This question always prompts a lot of pauses. People have to really think. Usually, people can remember when they were asked for help. “I have a really nice shared amenities room in my apartment building and someone asked to use it for an event. I shared that,” offered one person. “I think time has value, so whenever someone asks me for a meeting or I ask someone for a meeting, we’re asking each other for help,” said another.

Only a few were able to share their own requests for help. One person said, “I needed to borrow a grill from a neighbor. I made sure I invited  my neighbor to the BBQ before I asked to borrow the grill.” Another person said, “I had to ask for help with babysitting my daughter once. But I only asked someone who already has kids.”  

Overall, the consensus was that asking for help is hard. It makes us uncomfortable. I heard a lot of, “I don’t like asking for help”; “I don’t want to trouble people”; “It’s easier to ask on other people’s behalf, like when you are raising money” and “It’s easier to pay for things than to ask.”

Originally, I asked this question because I wanted the _ion team to think about the nature of giving and receiving help. I didn’t expect it to be so hard to share stories of asking for help. I’ve asked many others the same question since then and the trend holds true. Asking for help, especially help we could pay someone else to provide, makes us feel vulnerable, like we’re exposing a weakness.

As for myself, I’ve been car-less for most of my adult life. I remember a time before ridesharing apps were available when I had to rely on either people offering or my requesting a ride.  Now when I think about getting from point A to point B, I find myself going through a mental calculation of, “how much would I be inconveniencing this person if I ask them for a ride? Is that inconvenience worth saving $12?” Moreover, people don’t offer as often because they figure I’ll travel by rideshare. Other questions I consider before asking for a ride include, “Would this person want to spend an additional 10-30 minutes with me in their car?” “If I don’t get a ride with someone, are rideshare or bus practical options?” In truth, I am more comfortable asking for rides on other people’s behalf than for myself.

Asking for help invites the possibility of rejection

Of the dozens of people I’ve posed this question to, only one person answered, “I ask for help and favors all the time. And I give them too.”

What makes that person so different? My first assumption was that it’s because he’s so integrated into his community, and therefore has many people whom he feels comfortable enough to give and receive favors. Yet I realized that theory doesn’t hold true since so many others I asked are just as connected to their own communities.

It got me thinking. What do we think of others who ask for help? Do we think others will think of us that way if/when we ask for help? Asking for help is a way to deepen a relationship, but it also feels like a risk. Perhaps what we’re really afraid of is being rejected.

A few years ago, I asked my a friend for a $10,000 loan. Before I requested the loan, I was worried what he was going to think about me making this ask. In the end, he wasn’t able to give me the loan and I ended up getting it from someone else. Getting the loan request rejected was different than getting rejected as a person. In reality, my request brought out a conversation on the taboo topic of money. We became closer.

Last year, a friend asked me for a $200 loan. He was between paychecks. I was a little surprised by the ask, but I realized he probably didn’t have many people he could turn to. After he got back on his feet, he’s been treating me to meals to express his gratitude. Last month, over one of those meals, I thanked him for trusting me enough to ask. I now appreciate just how difficult it was to make the ask.

As for my friend who doesn’t have a problem asking for help? He’s one of the most easy-going, generous and confident people I know. He’s not afraid of the word  “no” because he understands it just means, “sorry, buddy, I can’t help you this time”, not, “no, and I can’t believe you don’t have the means to figure this out yourself.” He trusts that his family and friends will help when they can, and will also turn to him when they need the same; without fear of judgment or prejudice.

Asking for help deepens relationships

When I ask people, “Do you think any less of someone who asks you for help,” they always say, “no, of course not.” Why then do we set a different standard for ourselves? Why do we assume that a request for help from others will result in others thinking less of us?

In fact, the opposite is true. A friend once told me about a psychological phenomenon, “Ben Franklin Effect,” which provides interesting insight into our question. The theory states that someone who does a favor for you at your request, will actually end up liking you more, and vice versa. Asking for a favor provides someone with an opportunity to help you, and in turn, feel good about themselves for doing so.

People ask me for favors on a regular basis — make an introduction, review an essay, write a reference–perhaps because I freely offer my help. While I have no problem asking for help on behalf of the nonprofit I work at, I often hesitate when it comes to myself.

In 2018, I resolve to start asking for personal help more consistently. When I hit a roadblock in my life and need help, I want to push myself to look first within my network for assistance. Whether the answer is yes, or no, I vow to see every request for help as an opportunity to deepen relationships with those I trust.

So, reader, ask yourself the same question, “When was the last time a non-relative asked you for help? When was the last time you asked a non-relative for help?” Please share your answer in the comments.


Julie Pham, PhD runs _ion, a program of the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) that recruits and leads volunteers from tech, government and community-based organizations to tackle our civic challenges. She grew up in Seattle, after immigrating to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. She co-owns Northwest Vietnamese News with her family. She loves throwing dinner parties in her International District home.

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