Not long ago, a former student emailed me asking for an urgent meeting. Since I was traveling, I suggested some windows for a call. When we got on the phone, he said he was calling to ask for a recommendation letter.
Did he make the right decision to ask for a face-to-face meeting?
In a pair of studies, psychologists Mahdi Roghanizad and Vanessa Bohns found that face-to-face requests were 34 times more effective than email. When someone sends you a cold email, it’s hard not to be a little suspicious. If you talk to them in person, it’s easier to trust them. But what if you’re making a request of someone you already know?
In two new experiments, Roghanizad and Bohns sent nearly 3,000 people to ask five friends for a small favor. First, they asked them whether they’d be most likely get a yes in person, by video call, by phone, or voice message. Most of the participants said that with friends, the medium wouldn’t make much of a difference. But when they were randomly assigned to make the request over one of the four communication channels, it turned out they were wrong. Very wrong.
If they made the request face-to-face, on average, 4 out of 5 friends agreed. If they made it by one of the other channels, fewer than 3 out of 5 agreed.
When I first read this research, I was excited. Long live actual interaction!
Then I thought about my own experience and preferences. When my former student asked me for a meeting and then asked for a recommendation letter, I was annoyed. Although I generally love being helpful, I get far more requests than I can possibly field. Asking for my time is an ask.
Yes, I might be more likely to say yes if you make the request in person. That’s when I’m focused on the costs of saying no (awkward turtle! guilt attack!). But afterward, there’s a potential cost to the relationship. I leave the interaction with a bad taste in my mouth: it seems like you don’t respect my time.
I get that for some people—and in some cultures—asking by email seems rude. You might think it’s polite to make a request face-to-face, or least synchronously by Zoom or phone. But my hunch is that the busier people are, the more they appreciate getting requests asynchronously by email instead. Along with saving time, it gives them the freedom to weigh the costs of saying yes along with the costs of saying no.
You don’t have to ask for people’s time to ask for their time. If they’re busy, they’ll probably appreciate the asynchronous channel as a signal that you value their time. Let them know what the deadline is—and tell them why you chose them in particular for this request. Ultimately, if they agree to help, it will be out of choice and care, not pressure and obligation.