Think of any request you ask of someone on a scale of 1-10, with 5 being average, 1 being completely unreasonable, and 10 being on the level of simplicity as “Do you have a pen?” If you set up your request with a bunch of apologetic language, the person thinks you’re going to ask a 3 or a 4. Then when you come out with a 6 or 7, the person is relieved.

You come home from school after–

Ah, let’s start over. Because this actually happened to me.

I got a D in one of my classes in high school, or middle school, or something, and I did something I call overshooting the bad news.

I don’t come from a super overbearing family or anything, but of course I knew my mom would be disappointed. Any mom would. So I made it seem like the grade was worse than it actually was, in order to set her expectations for what I was about to say. And then I exceeded those expectations when I came clean with the factual truth. It was only a D, not an F. (Sorry, mom.)

No idea what actually happened, or specifically what I said, or anything. I just know that it happened once. This was a long time ago, and I can’t even remember the eye color of any of my previous girlfriends. (Sorry, girlfriends.)

Suppose you are a server at a restaurant, and you’ve brought the food out to the customers’ table. You realize that the burger has mayo on it, and the customer did ask for “no mayo.” Which is what anyone should do because mayo is absolutely disgusting.

[You, apologetically] “Oh my gosh, I am so sorry… I’ll bring a new one out right away. I am so sorry.”

At this point the customer still doesn’t even know what’s wrong with the burger. Probably hasn’t even noticed the mayo yet because you literally just brought the plates to the table about two seconds ago.

So you’ve set the person’s expectations at a certain level. You’re making it sound like something terrible has happened. Maybe there’s a rat or a hair in the burger. Or a rat hair.

[You] “You did ask for no mayo; I’m so sorry. I’ll get you a new one.”

Oh! It’s just the mayo. This is literally what I would do in this situation if I were the customer:

[Me, smiling sincerely] “No, no, it’s fine! Don’t worry about it. I’m okay with mayo. It’s alright.”

(Then the two of us would play the no-it’s-okay game back and forth until one of us caves.)

I do not like mayo. But the server was so nice about it, and acknowledged the mistake, so it’s whatever. Also I grew up in the American Midwest, and we’re a polite bunch of folk.

In the example from Wednesday’s post, where you and your friend want to use the toilet in a restaurant, pay special attention to the first half of the request:

“I know I’m not a customer, so normally you wouldn’t let a random stranger walk in and do this, because it’s really impolite… and I know you’ll say no because this is a little strange, but could my friend here perhaps use the restroom?”

During the first few phrases, the person working at the door to the restaurant might be thinking all sorts of strange things. When you exceed those expectations by only asking to use the restroom instead of… asking for free food or whatever they were expecting you to say, the person is a little relieved that the request is so simple.

This works for requests, but also softening the blow when you know you screwed something up and you might get in trouble for it.

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