A Little Nudge…

Reader Response to “Don’t Marry Career Women” – A Little Nudge…

A Little Nudge…
“MY EX-WIFE WANTED only a few simple things from me. She wanted me to manage the money, stay true, show her some love, and, occasionally, scratch her back as we watched television. On the first three, well, I tried.

But the last thing—the back-scratching—I simply refused. “Why?” she asked once. She found it soothing and sensible. She had no problem scratching my back. “It’s the oldest bit in the book: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

In part, I was disturbed by the simian posture of two people picking at each other in their idle time. But in truth, it was that phrase. I’d always hated that phrase. It is the epitome of the unasked-for insinuation of obligation. Look at the wording: I’ll do this, you’ll do that. It’s a command, an imperative hidden inside a service you never asked for. I never wanted my goddamned back scratched. I never asked. But because she did it, I was obligated.

CONSIDER NOW that moment when some old lady at the end of the supermarket aisle offers you a free sample of andouille sausage on a little piece of RyKrisp. Technically, she’s just offering you a piece of overrated regional sausage. And yet. And yet when you reach for it, it’s with the understanding that you are now obligated to stand there and consider buying a product in which you have no interest. The principle here is reciprocation theory, which posits that the most common human response to a favor, even an unasked-for favor, is to return it in kind. That’s the essence of the back-scratching proposal—an obligation you didn’t ask for. It’s a tool used mostly by people to sell you things—corporations, department stores, supermarkets.
The thing that’s generally ignored in the banal mathematics of trade-offs like this is that, generally, the people making the proposition win. They’re the ones who act. They’re the ones who bet first. They’re the ones who need their backs scratched. The first actors tend to wield the influence.

I get that. I get that because I’m always looking for an edge. It’s impossible to understand the language of influence unless you can view your life as a series of transactions in which you’re simply one element in a human logic problem. You must teach yourself to see the humanity layered into these equations and understand that everybody wants something: the commission, the closing bell, dinner with the family, inner peace, a better vacation. These are outcomes. The people you deal with most likely point at their desired outcomes in more ways than they know. Understanding that is the first step toward real influence.

You have to see yourself as an individual force. And the person you face—the salesman, the desk clerk, the cop writing you a ticket—is the opposing force. You have to nudge that other force, redirect it toward your desired outcome by finding ways to assert connection, increase obligation, recenter the transaction. This is the salient muscle of influence.

A FEW WEEKS AGO I started offering a piece of gum. Before every transaction, before a single key hit the register, before the tally began, I whipped out some gum and offered a piece to the person who was about to bill me. I tried to assume the posture of a free sample: You don’t have to buy me, I tried to have my affect say. Just consider me.
People shrugged, took the gum or didn’t, and then, to a one, said, “Thanks.” And then, remarkably, they took another look and usually asked me a question: Was I happy with the service? Did I get what I wanted? How was it? It seemed that I had flicked a switch with each of them—the stern, the distant, the foggy—as if the gum itself made them ask me the question.

At that point, I found that I could look back, sigh a little, and maybe get a little something extra. The gum made us intimates, in the same way a proffered cigarette bonds two smokers. I could shrug then and give a little critique: I need a different color. That drink was weak. The spinach was cold. People with my gum in their mouth knocked a buck or two off a check, or bought me a free drink, or went back to take another look.

In two weeks, only three people turned the gum down. For a short time, I became a convert to reciprocation theory. So I upped the ante. I gave a bottle of wine to my doctor and six-packs of beer to my lawn guy, to a contractor working on my bathroom, and to my locksmith. But once I got beyond the trivial offer of the gum, once I got beyond the gesture into the realm of the gift, the results were out of whack: I never got anything in return. Not really. Sure, these folks were cheerier and always made conversation. But I wasn’t getting quicker, cheaper work. I didn’t get a faster EKG or a better application of winterizer. The truth is, gifts are not the same as favors. While people respond to a gesture easily enough, nobody wants an obligation he or she doesn’t know how to answer. I had been trying to create a sense of obligation in others, to see if I could get what I wanted by giving something inconsequential and unexpected. I’d ended up throttling the process with the complication of gifts.

SO I DECIDED to work on a single problem, on getting one particular service from one single person, my dopey dry cleaner. My problem was simple: Sometimes I want my clothes on hangers, and sometimes I want my clothes folded. That’s it. When staying home, I want them on hangers. When traveling, I want the clothes folded, so I can drop them into my rolling bag without having to refold or worry about creases. The problem is, my guy always—and I mean always—puts them on hangers.

For years, I had tried tipping—generally my first answer to every service situation: up the tip. I had figured this would increase his sense of obligation to me. I’d slide a five across the counter and remind him again. I’d watch him print the word in big block letters on the slip—FOLD—and I’d leave the five there on the counter like a piece of fruit, figuring this would do the trick. But I’d return in a couple of days, throw open the wisely belled door, and as soon as I met his eyes, I’m telling you, it was as if my dry-cleaning guy had never seen me before. The blankness of his stare, the frayed quality of his nerves, the mere fact of his three-year-old son throwing blocks at an inflatable clown in the office to my right—all of it made me feel as if my five bucks had been simply swallowed up by stress and despair. And when the clothes came out—always on hangers, always!—my shoulders would sag, and then my guy would remember my request, maybe even my tip, and he’d cringe. “Give me a sec,” he’d say. “I’ll run back and fold these myself.” And minutes later, he’d reemerge, apologize, and hand me my shirts.

Now, I love the tip. But this exercise taught me that it doesn’t always work. You aren’t acting first. You’re offering a reward, not an incentive. My dry cleaner was assuming that folding the clothes, even while I stood there in the shop tapping my toes, meant he was holding up his end. Me, I was employing the tip—even when I gave it at the front end—as a means of sanctifying the transaction, assuming it would make my deal a little more special than anyone else’s. But in this case, the tip had become part of the unwanted pattern. There was no effect when I withheld it. It just felt as if I was breaking the contract. Worse, by withholding, I would lessen his obligation to the transaction. When it comes to influence, perceived obligation is your best tool. That’s why you act first.

It is a small thing, recrafting the ebb and flow of a daily routine. One afternoon, I grabbed my shirts out of the backseat of my car and accidentally picked up a book my son had left there weeks before. I dumped the whole pile on the counter and went into the office and talked to the kid. After a minute, my guy came out. “You want me to separate these?”

I stood with my arms folded at the door to the kid’s playroom. What was the point? He wouldn’t fold them anyway. He started sorting the shirts along the pattern he knew. When he got to the bottom of the pile, he found the book. I could see that it was Big Bugs, Small Bugs: If You Had to Be a Bug, Which Bug Would You Be? My son had picked it up at a library sale weeks before and promptly lost interest. The dry cleaner pushed it to one side.

That’s when I decided to act, to make the accident into a kind of open-ended offer. “That’s for your son,” I said, hooking a thumb over my shoulder. And, as if on cue, the kid popped up in the doorway. My dry-cleaning guy looked from me to his son back to me again. It was at that moment that I knew he could really see me. I was no longer just a demanding, albeit occasionally generous, customer. Not just another whiner, all too ready to take his business elsewhere. I was a guy who had done something for him. The accident of the book had tied him to me.

And as I paid, I said nothing and I gave no tip. He looked at me. “This pile on hangers,” he said, “and this one folded. Right?”

I nodded and grabbed my clean clothes from the rack. “You’re traveling?” he said. “Where to?”
And I told him, because I could see he was looking into my life then, working to understand me in a way he hadn’t up to now. I didn’t mind him trying to figure me out. I could tell I was on the verge of a small victory, undoing the indifference and carelessness of a routine. I’d acted first; now it was his turn. At long last, he was scratching my back. I’ll admit I’d had an itch.”


-Steven Burda

steven.burda.mba @gmail.com | http://www.linkedin.com/in/burda

08-28-2006 07:41 PM

Re: A Little Nudge…
Regular Contributor
A backscratch is way better than either sex or money IMO.

It’s the one point in favor of woman having nails.

“The loudest, most strident voices calling women weak, stupid, and incapable of competing in the world at large are the feminists.” – zed the zen priest

08-28-2006 10:32 PM

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