Archive for the ‘anti-time-stealer hacks’ category

Why do spammers spam?

August 24, 2016

I once wrote about handling confusing or open-ended requests with the “quick-question trick”: respond swiftly to ask for some clarification and watch the requester melt away.

It’s great to have a technique for making these people vanish, but I do wonder why a request for specifics works on this kind of person like garlic or sunlight on a vampire.

  • They ignore your response despite having contacted you in the first place.
  • They ignore your response despite the fact that you’d assume a response was their hoped-for outcome.

That was how I saw it for a while, and it seemed bafflingly contradictory. Then I realised it’s more consistent than it seems.

Someone who contacts multiple people asking for something is likely to be the kind of person who contacts multiple people asking for something. People who hate asking favours and sending mass messages still do those things when it’s necessary, sure, but they make up a tiny minority of the people who do those things. The kind of person who does this is mostly pretty comfortable with it. Why? Are they really comfortable with expecting each person to spend time trying to work out what they’re being asked? Are they really comfortable with expecting each person to do the work of saying no?

The answer is partly to do with the Askers versus Guessers divide. The kind of person who emails 70 people with a badly-written block of text doesn’t actually expect each person to labour over reading it, work out what’s required and respond. That’s why they emailed 70 people when they only need two or three to help. They’re playing a numbers game, assuming most people won’t take the message seriously. But the few who do? Great. When you think that way, it’s totally consistent for you to be flaky about your own inbox. Do as you would be done by. Send out emails you expect most people to ignore, then ignore most of the messages you get yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it seems like a sub-optimal way to handle your shit, but at least it’s internally consistent.

So “They ignore your response despite having contacted you in the first place” becomes “They feel comfortable about contacting you in the first place because they’re happy to ignore emails and they figure everybody else is too.”

Likewise “They ignore your response despite the fact that you’d assume a response was their hoped-for outcome.” Yes, you’d assume they had some kind of outcome in mind. You’d assume they had some kind of plan or system, starting with monitoring responses to the request for help, then following up on those responses, providing more information, allocating tasks… Nope. They ignore your response because they did not think about outcomes at all.

Some of it is probably a pseudo-pragmatic calculation of resources; mass-contacting people or organisations takes way less time per person/organisation than responding to questions. Some of it is about being a flake, some of this is about being the kind of person who wants lots of other people’ s attention and energy without having a plan for doing anything useful with it. And some of it is about having a cheerful “throw mud at the wall and see what sticks” attitude, or a “numbers game” attitude or a “well, they can only say no!” attitude. (We’re back to Askers versus Guessers again.)

Ultimately I think it’s just about having a fundamentally different atttitude to people’s time, attention and communication. If you only ask for help very occasionally, when it’s something that’s really important to you, you’re going to take other people’s requests for help more seriously because you “know” that asking for this kind of help is something that people only do when it’s important. And you’re going to be gutted when your own requests for help are met with indifference.

Likewise, if you ask for help all the time, and you don’t put too much emotional energy into it, to the point where you can’t really be bothered to explain what you’re actually asking for, you will not  be too upset when people ignore you. And when you get requests for help, you will feel free to ignore them because you “know” that people just throw this kind of thing out there. I think you get this type of thinking in jobs like sales and recruitment, because if you agonised over each time you didn’t get what you were pushing for in those kinds of jobs, it would be very bad for your mental health.

This reading of the situation makes it seem as if the person who reads emails properly and respects other people’s time and doesn’t make unreasonable requests…well, that person basically loses. And that the winning strategy is to be the arsehole who just makes badly formulated demands in a scattergun fashion and hopes to utilise other people’s niceness to get what you want without even asking properly for it.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the “respect people’s time and communicate clearly” camp and this post has made you think again about how the “throw it out there” camp is trying to waste your time and energy every day. My imperfect solution is to try to identify which camp people are in and then respond accordingly. The  quick-question trick is amazingly effective for filtering out the human spammers. But mostly, you can just carry on being respectful and thoughtful and articulate.

The thing is, you don’t actually win the “numbers game” by spamming a huge number of people and then being incapable of following up on the responses. You win by actually getting what you were looking for. The scattergun approach isn’t ultimately that effective if you’re not capable of building on what you get back. Because people are not, in fact, walls to throw mud at. Making things “stick” is about relationships and respect.

Dealing with vague requests: the quick-question trick

September 21, 2015

I get a lot of vague requests for help. I don’t know if this is a problem that most people have, or something specific to my situation. In my professional life I’m in the field of organisational communications and in my personal life I’ve volunteered for a lot of different organisations in a communications/publicity capacity. So I’m guessing that I get this more than average, but others get it too.

The vague request usually comes in through email or social media. Sometimes it takes the form of a big chunk of information followed by a request to “link up” or “do something with this” or “discuss this”. Sometimes it’s just a big chunk of information on its own, with no context, but I know or guess that I’m expected to do something with it.

This stuff drives me crazy, because I’m  a Guesser rather than an Asker, so I feel some obligation to take requests seriously. But I inwardly groan because I can’t easily see what they want me to do, and I resent the fact that the sender is forcing me to do the interpretative labour of working it out. (And then they presumably want me to burn through some more cognitive resource deciding whether or not I can/should/will do it, and then either saying no (which takes energy) or actually doing the thing. That’s really a lot to ask from someone when you haven’t even bothered to explain what you want.

Actually, there are lots of reasons why people send this kind of non-specific request.

  • The sender might feel embarrassed about asking for help directly. This seems especially common with women. I think the cultural training not to be “demanding” leads to asking for things in a roundabout way.
  • The sender might have no theory of mind, so they assume that if they tell people what they’re planning, we’ll all understand exactly what is required and offer relevant help.
  • The sender hasn’t actually worked out what help they need but they want either attention or the feeling that they’re doing something (or both), and they can get this from alerting strangers to their project.
  • The sender has really poor communication skills.
  • The sender is basically just spamming.

Whatever the reason, they’re a potential time-stealer and I get something like this every couple of weeks. My tendency when I get this kind of message is to be avoidant, because I resent the fuck out of having this confusing and boring thing land on me. And then I feel guilty about being avoidant. And by the time I do get back to the person (or delete the message) I’ve used up a lot of energy on badfeelz.

But I recently discovered an amazing trick for dealing with this kind of thing. Almost as soon as I see the message, I get straight back to the person with a quick question. Usually: “What exactly are you asking me to do?

I’ve said before that I get something like this every couple of weeks. I started the quick-question trick a few months ago. Want to know how many people have got back to me after I responded with my question? None. Zero.

I’m actually astonished by this. I was expecting to weed out the vaguest 20% so that I could actually deal with the other 80% on clearer terms. Instead, I have sweet, sweet silence from 100%.

I was genuinely worried that asking a follow-up question means engaging with the person and implicitly showing interest, making it harder to say “no” further down the line. But it turns out that the follow-up question is an amazing filter for this kind of crap. And as far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter what the follow-up question is. I’ve also tried “What organisation do you represent?”, “Why are you sending me this?” and “Can you give me some more details?” with huge success. (Success in this instance is defined as silence.)

Of course, of course, of course many people will have read this post and thought: “What? Why don’t you just ignore these people in the first place?” Well, come back to me when you’ve had a lifetime’s cultural training to be obliging. Come back to me when a big chunk of your day’s paid work involves handling confusingly worded requests, and you don’t have the tools to distinguish a stranger-who’s-really-important from a random spammer.

The quick-question trick allows you to a) get the message out of your inbox/headspace as quickly as possible while b) looking obliging and helpful and c) not feeling guilty or worried about ignoring something that might have turned out to be important if you’d just puzzled over it a bit longer. It also allows you to d) push the work of formulating the task required back to the person who’s asking you to do the task, which seems only fair.

Help with my thing

May 24, 2012

I know a guy who’s continually starting new things. I say “things” because I don’t think there’s a better word. They’re mostly political-ish campaigns but it might be a charity fundraiser one week, a new blog the next, and so on. Mostly they’re things that sound vaguely like a good idea, so it’s been hard for me to work out quite why he irritates me so much.

Then I got it. Firstly, he doesn’t finish much. He’ll start a petition, hassle everybody he knows to sign it… then walk away. Or he’ll start a “community website”, hassle everybody he knows to contribute blog posts and pictures… then walk away. He’s not even a friend of mine, but he’s still asked me to support three different campaigns in the past couple of months. A friend who follows his progress closely tells me that he’s started and abandoned five websites in the past year.

But I realised today: that’s not the main reason why he annoys me. He annoys me because in addition to not being a finisher, he is not a joiner. I’ve never known him help out with an existing campaign or somebody else’s event. He always starts his own things, because he is desperate to be a leader, desperate to be the guy who starts things.

Why does that annoy me? Because it’s not fucking fair, that’s why. Because in a fair world, people who do voluntary stuff in their spare time would all get a fairly equal share of helping out with existing stuff and starting their own stuff. And I believe that (again, in a fair world) if you start something you take responsibility for it, and you push it through the dip of other people’s apathy and hostility, and you get it going and you nurture it and you damn well keep it going until you’ve either achieved what you needed to achieve or found someone else to take over. You don’t walk away without a damn good reason, and you’re supposed to feel bad if you do.

You might say “Hey, Gryphon, take a chill-pill. You’re talking about voluntary work here, done in his own time. You don’t get to dictate how other people’s voluntary work is done. Isn’t it better he does things a bit badly rather than, like so many people, doing nothing at all?”

Well, actually… no. Starting a new campaign or event of your own is rewarding because by its very nature it tends to be something you’re deeply interested in. You have ownership and you get to take most of the credit. Whereas helping out with other people’s events is less rewarding, because you’re fitting in with other people’s ideas and schedules, you don’t get to control what’s going on and, y’know, it’s not your thing. But if everybody decided just to do the fun, rewarding bits, there would be nobody left to help with anything, stuff often wouldn’t get completed and we would have some serious tragedy-of-the-commons shit going on.

And while we’re talking about the commons, I also believe there’s a finite store of general goodwill to be had. There is a limit to people’s willingness to sponsor your sponsored events, sign your petitions, man your stall, give out your leaflets and, well, generally help with your thing. That store gets depleted every time someone starts something new and requests support for it. And if you deplete that store without actually doing any good as a result (because you abandon every project before it achieves anything) you are actively doing harm. That’s why doing voluntary work in this way is not a mildly benign or even neutral activity.

I don’t start my own things much, partly because of my belief that people will be more sympathetic to your latest request for help/attendance/support if you’re not continually demanding this. I guess my (until now, unexamined) assumption was that you could earn that support by helping with other people’s things.

Apparently not. The most recent thing I started and ran myself was a public event in November 2010. I didn’t ask for help organising it; I just asked my circle of friends and acquaintances to attend. I took on the responsibility of organising it myself, with the help of one other person. 300 people were invited to the event by post. Another 600 or so I invited more casually, through Twitter. My co-organiser took care of the local press, Upcoming, etc. I singled out a few friends that I guessed were certain to support me, and contacted them individually to check they were coming. This was my thing. This was the basket I’d put all my eggs into.

And I thought that because I’ve never asked my friends to sponsor my trek in the Himalayas or bake a cake for my jumble sale, that would count in my favour. I thought that because of all the times I’ve gone to their art exhibition and baked cakes for their fundraiser and sponsored their 5k run, it would count in my favour. I thought about all the petitions I’ve signed, all the stalls I’ve manned, all the marches I’ve gone on, all the times I’ve dragged myself out on a wet evening to “be there for” various people, and I thought “yes, this will definitely count in my favour.”

It fucking well didn’t. Guess how many people turned up on that rainy and windy night? One. One complete stranger. My closest friends and loved ones had excuses for not being there; nobody else even thought they needed to explain. They saw no reason to offer their apologies, because, hey, you can’t support everybody’s stuff, right?

And that just made me boil with fury, because I felt as if I had damn well earned support for my event by putting my time and energy into organising something good and making sure it happened. I felt as if I’d doubly earned it by “doing my time” helping out with other people’s events and campaigns, and triply earned it because I hadn’t abused people’s goodwill with an endless stream of bullshit. But this guy gets more support for each fresh piece of poorly-thought-out, quickly-abandoned rubbish than I got for my one event.

I’ve heard that in the crazy world of business, you’re more likely to get venture capital if you have a string of failed businesses behind you. You’d assume the venture capital would go to people who are starting their first business, who’ve never fucked up, but actually it goes to people who’ve jumped into carrying out a series of poorly-thought-out ideas and failed at all of them. And I wonder if that’s how it works in the world of voluntary things. Perhaps the guy who’s started and abandoned twenty things in the past year is somehow seen as a better bet than the guy who only does one thing every eighteen months or so and tries to do it really well. If so, I have no idea why.

Anyway. It’s clear that there is not an infinite supply of goodwill and support. In a perfect world it would be divided equally so we all got the same amount each. (The guy I’m talking about would have used up his year’s supply by mid-January.) But clearly we don’t. It’s a common store and if other people have been pulling a lot of bullshit lately, there will be no goodwill left for your thing. And it doesn’t matter how hard you’ve personally worked on it or how infrequently you personally make demands on the goodwill store.

We don’t live in a perfect world. And I can only control my own behaviour.

So I won’t keep sponsoring you. I might sponsor you if you’re doing something challenging and you haven’t asked me for sponsorship for at least a year and I don’t suspect your sponsored event is a thinly-disguised holiday. But the ex-colleague who does three half-marathons a year and asks me to sponsor him for all of them? Nu-uh. Maybe if you do a full marathon, mate.

Ditto events. Yes, it’s important to you and you’ve put a lot of work into organising it. Well, that’s how I felt about my November 2010 event, and if you’re reading this you almost certainly didn’t bother turning up to that. (Unless you’re the one person who did. Cheers, Dave, I still appreciate it even now.)

Ditto your fucking petition. I know it only takes a minute to sign. But it’s longer if I’m responsible enough to actually read what I’m supposed to be signing.  And I get asked to sign perhaps ten a week. And it’s not as if by signing your petition I’m building up some kind of credit which will make you more likely to sign mine. It’s no more reciprocal or fair than any other thing. I think in my entire life I have created two petitions. Both were really important to me, both were ignored by most of my acquaintances. So fuck any person or organisation who thinks I somehow owe them because it’s “just a minute” to sign.

Ditto how you really want me to write to my MP. That can take a good fifteen minutes. You’d better not have asked me to do the same thing in the past year, or I’ll say no with a glad heart.

In other words: I cannot create a world in which goodwill and support is distributed fairly. But I can ration my own goodwill and support in a way that I believe is fair. Because I have reached the conclusion that trying to support everything is not actually the right thing to do. Not only is it impossible and a one-way road to burnout: it’s actually unfair to treat each thing equally when equal resources and commitment are not being put into them.

It’s not the not arriving, it’s the coming back

February 16, 2012

If you’ve ever been a tenant, you’ll probably know that landlords in this country are obliged by law to give 24 hours’ notice of a visit. But you’ll also know that this doesn’t eliminate the stress-inducing uncertainty around visits to the property. Why? Because they’re not obliged by law to actually turn up for the arranged visit. Or to tell you that they’re not turning up. Which means they can and often will fail to turn up, leaving you waiting in your unnaturally tidy flat, unable to make other plans or relax in your own home.

It’s a similar thing with repair and maintenance work. The landlord or letting agency says “We’ll send someone round as soon as possible” and then you often have a whole week of knowing that a stranger will be given keys to your home and could turn up and let themselves in at any time, with no further warning. You can’t complain, because they’re turning up at your request to fix something that needs fixing, but the “24 hours’ notice” thing doesn’t stop you feeling jumpy for a week or more.

The problem with someone not turning up is not that they haven’t turned up; it’s that they will now turn up at a different time. This applies whether they were supposed to come to your house or meet you elsewhere. If a no-show meant a cut-and-dried cancellation, it would be fine and dandy. But most of the time, a no-show means that you have to go through the whole thing again. Unless you’re in a position of power over the person who hasn’t turned up, they get to take double the time and mental energy from you. Quadruple or more if they keep things uncertain.

And, of course, if that person is in a position of power over you, the no-show matters. It means Hoovering and plumping the cushions twice, or maybe getting dressed up and travelling somewhere twice. It means worry and uncertainty and not knowing how much anger to show.

You see, almost every “yes” is conditional, but the conditions often go unsaid. “Yes, you can borrow my camera” doesn’t mean “Yes, you can come round at any time, day or night, to borrow my camera.” “Want to meet up for lunch on Thursday?” doesn’t mean “Feel free to ignore my calls until noon on Thursday; I’ll keep lunch free and travel to your end of town just in case.”

So when your no-show pulls the classic trick of reappearing after you’d forgotten about them, demanding the thing you originally offered but with different conditions attached, it’s hard to say no because you’ve already said yes. Your “yes” was conditional, but you didn’t make that explicit. “We agreed I could pop round with that stuff from work, so why are you suddenly being weird about it? I know I was supposed to be there yesterday – sorry about that – but I’m in the area now, so why can’t I just come round?”

It’s the same reason why you can’t yell at the letting agency for sending round a plumber. “You rang us yesterday asking when we were going to send a plumber round! OK, so we didn’t ring you back, but we did something better – we actually sorted out a plumber! I’m sorry you felt awkward having a stranger let themselves into your house while you were in the shower, but you’re the one who keeps nagging us for a plumber.” The accepted view appears to be that if you’ve let someone down on one occasion, you get a free pass to turn up unannounced or at short notice on any subsequent occasion of your choice. Needless to say, I don’t see it that way. But I try to understand the people who do, because understanding is key to dealing with them.

My guess is that usually, a person who fails to turn up doesn’t understand how much stress they’re causing. In situations where the power balance is on their side, they often genuinely don’t recognise that. It’s easy to let friendly relations mask a power differential. “Yeah, I know I’m his landlord/boss, but we have a really good relationship.”

But there is, no doubt about it, a lot of unexamined privilege underlying no-show behaviour. It’s time-stealing, but it’s based on entitlement rather than insecurity. People who don’t turn up are using other people’s willingness to commit in order to keep their own options open, without ever dreaming that failing to turn up could jeopardise what’s planned.

And, of course, it’s a long-winded way of refusing to give you a no. If someone keeps saying “yes” but keeps failing to deliver on it, it’s another way of refusing to give you the closure that a “no” would bring.

So what can you do? Just recognising the behaviour is a good start. Realising that they’re likely to suddenly reappear, probably without apology, is helpful too. (The reappearance is more annoying if you thought you were off the hook.) But recognising it doesn’t mean putting up with it silently. Get in touch, ask where they were, explain they haven’t met your expectations and push them to make proper arrangements for the highly likely reappearance.

If you didn’t want to see them in the first place, it’s tricky because you’re tempted to let it slide and hope they forget completely. But if you have something they want, they probably won’t. And “something they want” could well include your time and energy. So I would still suggest chasing, continuing to try to pin them down. And if the power differential allows it, you’re well within your rights to be openly angry and cancel the whole thing. That way you get out of it but keep the moral high ground.

A word of warning: don’t try to enforce time limits with a lie, e.g. “We’re going out at 7pm, so you’ll have to come round before then.” It is entirely possible that they’ll ignore your lie, like they ignored your previous arrangement(s), like they ignored basic etiquette, and come round anyway when you’re supposed to be out. Then you have to tell another lie to explain why you’re in. Yes. Lying to explain why you’re in your own home, to someone who doesn’t respect you enough to stick to a simple arrangement. What was that about a power differential?

Also: try to avoid basing initial arrangements on self-stories. By that I mean the stories people tell themselves about themselves. Sometimes they’re so invested in those stories that they’ll make arrangements with other people based on them.  “I’m always in the office by 8am. Talk then?” “I’m stuck at home with the baby, so come round literally any time.” “I practically live in the Starbucks on the High Street. Come and grab me there.”

Basing an arrangement on a self-story sets up a bad power differential: you are trying to fit in with something they claim to be doing anyway. That means they don’t have to plan anything different in order to meet you, which means that they won’t have to make an effort to remember to meet you, which means that if their self-story isn’t completely true, they’ll let you down.

So how do you deal with that? For a start, don’t challenge the self-story, because they’ll get defensive. My personal technique is to take the self-story at face value but then charmingly contrive to arrange something else. “Must be a nightmare being stuck at home all day! How about we meet in the park round the corner, just to get you out of the house?” “I bet they’ve put up a plaque to you in that Starbucks! But you’ve got to try the coffee at this new place…”

None of this works all the time. But just being aware of the dynamics of the situation can really help with how you feel about no-shows.

The cushion of obligations

October 2, 2008

We’ve already established that politeness makes it difficult for victims of time-stealers to simply say that they don’t want to see the time-stealer because they’d rather be doing something more enjoyable. However true it might be, it’s still hurtful and rude. So a good anti-pest technique is to create a cushion of obligations between you and the time-stealer. You’d love to meet up, but you have to work, or look after a sick pet, or do some last-minute DIY.

Urgent obligations are better for last-minute cancellations – a friend in crisis, a burst water pipe. But tedious obligations are better as an ongoing source of excuses.

When you see your pest, always mention your tedious obligations. Be as boring as you like. The time-stealer might get tired of always sympathising about your sick grandmother and move on to stealing somebody else’s time.

Some pests refuse to accept that their victims have any obligations that can’t be abandoned. My own experience of this is a friend repeatedly asking me to quit the volunteer work I had been doing every Saturday for three years, because he wanted to spend time with me on Saturdays.

Another example: I have also been asked to take the day off work at short notice in order to attend a charity fashion show that a time-stealer was organising. “Call in sick,” she said. When I refused, she said I didn’t care about the charity. (The fashion show never happened; asking me was about control, not about the imaginary show.)

Note 1: Many victims have experienced the self-loathing that comes of having used another friend’s divorce or bereavement to help them escape a time-grab. “She was just sobbing down the phone… She needs my help right now.” You’re not only exploiting someone else’s misery, you’re also manipulating your pest into feeling guilty for pestering you; and if you’re using manipulative techniques, how can you keep the moral high ground and differentiate yourself from the time-stealer?

Note 2: Academic work rarely cuts the mustard as a pest-escaping obligation, whether you’re at school or university. If your time-stealer is also supposed to be studying, you will make them feel insecure that they’re doing less work than you. This makes them more likely to nag you. Schoolkids can’t go far wrong with inventing a tyrannical parent who makes them do lots of chores. University students will have to fall back on part-time jobs and depressed friends.

Giving more doesn’t help

March 12, 2007

This particular anti-time-stealer hack has parallels with a defensive driving technique I learnt recently. During a driving lesson, I was driving towards a bend in the road with an impatient driver much too close behind me. My instructor gently reminded me (as if I needed reminding) that if I stopped suddenly, her car would almost certainly hit the back of the one I was driving. I followed my panicky instinct, which was to go faster in an effort to make her keep back, even though I was unhappy with my speed because I couldn’t see round the corner. As I came towards the bend, I was suddenly faced with an oncoming car, going too fast on the wrong side of the road. I panicked even more. My instructor braked and we narrowly avoided collision.

“Don’t ever think that going faster will get an impatient driver off your tail,” he said. “They’ll just go faster themselves and stay just as close.” He told me that the correct driving technique when someone’s tailgating you is to slow down to give yourself time to react to what’s ahead and also lessen the consequences if you do have to brake suddenly.

It’s the same with time-stealers. If you run yourself ragged trying to keep up with (or exceed) their demands, they will increase their demands. Victims sometimes make the mistake of calculating that if they usually see a pest once a week for an hour, then seeing them for four hours in one go will buy them three pest-free weeks. The time-stealer will calculate that the victim has agreed to see them for four hours this week, so they must have more time than they claimed. They will expect to see the victim for four hours every week from then on.

Trying to buy yourself future pest-free time by giving a time-stealer lots of time now simply doesn’t work. It’s the social equivalent of speeding up because you have a tailgater behind you. It doesn’t buy you time; it takes time away from you.