Ask for help face-to-face, not via phone or email, if you want results

By Emily Reynolds

We probably all like to think of ourselves as generous, giving people, ready to provide friends and even strangers with favours when they need help. If we’re honest, however, that probably isn’t always the case — in fact, we’re more likely to agree to a favour when we think we might not have to follow through at all.

A new study in Social Psychological and Personality Science looks at another facet of favours — the most effective way of asking for them. The team finds that we don’t expect there to be much difference between asking for favours in text-based, video and face-to-face settings— but that in reality, asking for help face-to-face is far more likely to yield results.

In the first study, participants were randomly assigned to one of five communication channels — face-to-face, video call, audio call, video message or audio message — and told they would be asking five friends for a favour through this channel. The favour, proofreading a half page piece of writing, was asked for using a specific script in order to maintain consistency across conditions. After reading the instructions, participants were asked to imagine asking for help from their friends, and in particular predict how many of them would agree to help. Finally, having left the lab, they actually asked their friends for the favour.

Face-to-face was significantly more effective than any other channel at successfully eliciting favours. But despite this, participants failed to recognise that face-to-face would be better than video messaging or video calling. And although they did realise that asking in-person would be more effective than via audio, they still underestimated the size of this difference.

The second study was similar to the first, but compared email requests to audio and video calls. Audio and video calls were significantly more effective at eliciting favours than email requests — but again, participants underestimated how much more effective requests via audio or video would be.

What the results don’t indicate is why “richer” channels like talking face-to-face — or via video call when that’s not an option — are so much more successful at eliciting favours. It could be because of awkwardness: it’s easier to say no via an email than to look someone in the eye and try to put them off. Or it may be because we relate to each other more in person and thus feel more connected, warm, and willing to help. Future research could explore these elements further.

We may be asking for help online or via the phone because of the convenience of non-face-to-face techniques. But, while sending an email or making a call is easier than actually going to see someone, in doing so we inadvertently disadvantage ourselves. Asking for important favours in person, therefore, may be worth the trip.

Should I Ask Over Zoom, Phone, Email, or In-Person? Communication Channel and Predicted Versus Actual Compliance

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest