When thank you isn't enough?
January 11, 2018 6:23 PM   Subscribe

How do you deal with a family member who constantly sees interactions with you in financial transactions terms?

When they offer to do a favor for me, then a verbal expression of gratitude isn't enough in their mind, but I should have offered to compensate them financially as well.

Is there a name for this money relationship style? It's very outputting to me because I do a lot of unpaid emotional labor for them and I don't ask to be compensated. I just do it because we're family and that's what you do for family members.

I'm not sure how to handle someone with this kind of relationship to money, but it makes me want to keep an arms distance from this person and avoid being indebted to them in any way.

Is there something akin to ask vs. guess culture , but for how people relate to money?
posted by Gosha_Dog to Human Relations (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I call it transactional or mercenary. Put another way, it's not a favor they are doing if they want to be compensated, it's a job/gig/whatever. I think it's good to have balance, however that works. Either you do less emotional labor for them because you feel it's putting you on unequal footing (where you do "more") or you just decide they are weird about this thing. You can decide to have them do you favors and not pay them or you can pay them and figure that will smooth things out of it's more important to do that.
posted by jessamyn at 6:32 PM on January 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Have you told them that this mismatch is impacting your desire to see them? What happens if you ask them to explicitly define these unspoken expectations, or flip it back on them?

Like, "Hey fam, my time starts at $20/hour. We can hang freely as family, which is my preference, but if you insist on being compensated for favors that I believe should be provided gratis out of love, I'll have to ask for the same treatment. I'd like us to define more clearly when money is attached and when it isn't."

Also.. is it the offer they desire, or the actual money? If you make an offer do they accept?
posted by fritillary at 6:55 PM on January 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

+1 jessamyn. Also, they're not offering to do you a favor if they expect compensation.

I've never been in exactly this situation, but, like you, I know I would never allow myself to be beholden to someone like that. Depending on the nature of my relationship with that person otherwise, I would either do the passive-aggressive thing and just let it ride without ever putting myself in a position of owing them anything, or if I valued the relationship more, I'd confront them and say "you seem to take a transactional view of our relationship, and I find that really off-putting."
posted by adamrice at 6:57 PM on January 11, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'd call it transactional, mercenary, and/or passive-aggressive.

Next time they offer to do you a favour, you could bring it all out into the open and ask "Do you expect to be compensated financially? And if so, what is your asking price?"
posted by rpfields at 7:07 PM on January 11, 2018 [8 favorites]

If they want money, it's not a favour, it's a paid job and they should be telling you upfront instead of weaselling their way around it by doing the task first and then telling you they expect cash. This allows you to know what their expectations are and you can decide whether or not you'd rather pay a family member, or you know, get a professional to do it.
So, yes, ask them flat out if this is a paid job. They'll probably pretend to be horrified that you see their 'favour' as the cash grab it appears to be.

They seem to want both the kudos of having done you a 'favour' plus the monetary reward of having done a paid job. It doesn't work like that. Personally, I've dealt with this by never having them do anything for me again because I don't like feeling like I owe them anything and they were the kind of person who did favours so you would be beholden to them. But that's just my situation, hopefully yours is different.
posted by Jubey at 7:18 PM on January 11, 2018 [9 favorites]

That sounds like they are flying under the radar and deceptively offering help while concealing an ulterior motive to get paid. It's not really a gift if they are asking for money, the real problem is that they conceal this until later. They are not gifting you with help, they are creating an obligation for which they are attempting to create financial debt after delivery. They may be unclear that this is what they are doing, in their own heads probably seems right as rain. I'd probably treat them as cash machines and always reply to offers to help with a request for terms and price.
posted by diode at 7:47 PM on January 11, 2018

I guess I might be interpreting this differently than everyone else . Or rather, I can imagine more than one scenario from your description here and I'm not sure what's actually going on.

A thing that I often see happening in my circles:

Alice has a job as a web designer. Friends and family ask her if she can design webpages for them as a favor. They underestimate how much work it takes Alice. She starts to feel frustrated and like she's being used. Her friends say, "Alice, you should set some boundaries, and just start charging them."

It would be a dick move for Alice to do the favor, and then ask for money afterward. But I don't think it would be a dick move for Alice to say she couldn't do the work unless it was a paid job.

So, I would ask... could this be what's happening here? And even if not, could your relative be perceiving it this way - that you are asking them do to what they consider to be work, for free? If so, I think that the right response is different than what's already been suggested.

If not, ignore this comment. (More specifics, like an example, would help though.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:49 PM on January 11, 2018 [17 favorites]

are they asking to be paid, or are they asking for you to act as if it would have been fair for them to be paid? Are they looking for money, or for the opportunity to act noble and refuse money?

Either way it's weird, but I think you'll get more targeted advice if you give us examples of the kind of favors and emotional labor are being discussed and what they said.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:00 PM on January 11, 2018 [5 favorites]

Interesting! So, instead of ask/guess culture, maybe it's altruistic vs. reciprocal culture?

It leads me to the question - are you both following the 5 Golden Rules of Favour Asking? I read these years ago, and it was a revelation.

1. Your Benefit Must Greatly Outweigh My Inconvenience
2. You Should Make it as Easy as Possible for Me to do the Favour
3. Ask immediately, Don't Small Talk
4. Do Everything You Can First
5. Reciprocate

(Please click through though - the extended explanations are perfect.)

If you're both behaving well in this, apart from the disconnect, then my last thought is: Is this how this relative attempts to earn a little money? I mean, perhaps they'd like a gratuity because they need the income, and it's a way of getting paid without saying they need it, and you are somehow supposed to know that your contribution should be offered so they can save face? My family had this complicated way of helping poorer relatives and neighbours in this way - make-work jobs, "Can you pick this up for me when you're at the store, and keep the change," and such pseudo-discreet gestures.
posted by peagood at 8:04 PM on January 11, 2018 [15 favorites]

So to give the most recent example, I'm usually pretty good with computers and can solve most of my own problems, but my hard drive failed on me this week. My sister's boyfriend works in IT and it came up that he could take a look at it for me and see if there was anything that could be done for it. I brought it to him and he spent a half hour trying different things, but to no avail.

I thanked him for trying and the 3 of us went out to dinner. We got separate checks, but today my sister tells me that I "didn't even offer to pay for his dinner or anything". My sister wasn't present when I thanked him, so maybe she wasn't aware that I had already expressed gratitude and I guess I could have paid for his meal, but I thought everything was good between me and the boyfriend and I would have been happy to repay the favor in the future.

I guess my good will isn't valued a whole lot by my sister and money is the preferred way to show gratitude and appreciation for her.
posted by Gosha_Dog at 9:08 PM on January 11, 2018

Seems like your sister embarrassed her boyfriend in front of you.
posted by mono blanco at 9:20 PM on January 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

so... this example has more shades of grey in it than I think you realize.

In this example t doesn't sound to me like your sister was demanding to be paid, or even that she was demanding you pay the boyfriend for his time. This example sounds to me like your sister is embarrassed that he was nice enough to work on your computer for half an hour, and - to her eye - you didn't express appropriate appreciation for that. For you to take advantage of her boyfriend's time makes her lose face to the boyfriend. Would offering to pick up his check have been the right level of appreciation? I don't know. But it sounds like that's what she was looking for.

I've been in situations like this, where a family member has done something really nice for my husband and it seemed to me that his response was tepid, and it did make me anxious, not because I wanted him to PAY for the nice gesture that had been given, but because it made me anxious that his tepid response was going to be perceived as rude by the giver, and there would be lingering bad feeling, and it all would have been avoided by an enthusiastic "thank you, this is awesome, you're awesome."

It's also possible that your sister's love language is indeed money. But this particular example doesn't paint her in a mercenary light, to my eye. Just as someone who's nervous about her boyfriend feeling like his gesture wasn't appreciated as much as she thought it deserved.

I hope that helps? I know it's complicated with sisters.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:21 PM on January 11, 2018 [30 favorites]

If someone "did me a favor" that was something like what they do for a living, I would offer them payment, and if they declined, take them and their significant other for dinner, or buy them a gift card for a meal for two and/or a movie or something similar.
Especially if another family member or friend had asked them to do the favor. They might bear the brunt otherwise of any third-party resentment.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 9:28 PM on January 11, 2018 [20 favorites]

Heh. I have a coffee mug (given by a family member) that says NO I WILL NOT FIX YOUR COMPUTER FOR YOU. It was a token of appreciation for fixing their computers, which is sort of what I do for a living. So I feel I have some non-theoretical experience here.

When I first read your question I thought it was beyond the pale, not so much now. To be sure I think your sister was pretty rude but I guess it's ask vs. guess vs. slam-it-in-the-other-person's-face.

But while paying for a favor is relationship destroying gross, picking up dinner after someone has done you a solid is a nice gesture. Optional but legitimate. (Incidentally, if you care more about what I think here, in this situation the boyfriend should have said "No, don't be ridiculous" because it was only half an hour and he totally failed.)

I would actually call what you describe in your example as not monetary but going back to pre-monetary "reciprocal gift giving" cultural instincts. People have different levels of instincts here. If this example is typical and your sister is the kind of person who always gives gifts as thank you's I think you just need to be aware of the different expectations, much like ask vs. guess.
posted by mark k at 10:01 PM on January 11, 2018 [12 favorites]

this example has more shades of grey in it than I think you realize.

I agree, this is not the kind of scenario I was imagining when I read your question. In my circles, buying dinner, a bottle of wine, or some other such token would be seen as a normal thank-you for somebody doing something for you that they would normally charge someone else for. That would go double if the opportunity for a more concrete "thanks" presented itself immediately after the favour was done, as it did in your example.
posted by rpfields at 10:03 PM on January 11, 2018 [10 favorites]

The family member this question about is your sister, right? Do you have an example where your sister is actually the person who offered to do you a favor, or is it just that she doesn't feel you are generous enough to other people when they do you favors?

Sister is presumably closer to her boyfriend than you are, and might know a lot more about what sort of expressions of gratitude boyfriend would appreciate. I've had friends point similar things out when we've done things like be guests of someone they are closer to than I am, and I've appreciated it. Perhaps she was harsher than you would have liked, but even if her advice is unsolicited it's very different than if SHE did you a favor.
posted by yohko at 10:15 PM on January 11, 2018

I think what your sister is getting at is that you didn't even offer to pay. The ideal behavior from all parties in this scenario would have been, he works on your computer, you go out to dinner, you offer to pick up his check to acknowledge that he did you a favor and he says, oh no, I didn't even get it working again. It's not really about the money - it's about showing appreciation for the boyfriend going out of their way. Honestly in my family culture it would be the splitting the check that would be considered mercenary.
posted by peacheater at 10:29 PM on January 11, 2018 [15 favorites]

I have a friend who's fairly mercenary like this. Money she spends on you and the money you spend on her is how you prove your love, period. I honestly don't think it's worth trying to argue with her about, I am gonna get nowhere. If your sister always wants the money, then give her the money, because otherwise she's hurt and offended and feels worthless because money = love.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:44 PM on January 11, 2018

I think your response was fine. The boyfriend didn't have to offer to help and if someone does, I will genuinely take it as a favour. Likewise, I would expect to split the bill regardless because it's less awkward if everyone pays for their own meal (avoids guilt if you feel you should reciprocate but don't feel that you can because you can't afford it). At least, in a case like this where it's a small amount of time and presumably no cost to him.

I volunteered to do a sewing thing for a friend recently (maybe 2 hours work) and she was very grateful and that's all I needed. I'd feel very awkward if she'd taken me to lunch in response. I wasn't doing her the favour for monetary gain. If I didn't want to do it, I wouldn't. Boyfriend didn't need to help. He easily could've said 'bummer. that sucks. hey they were on special at X shop". He offered to take a look at it.

Mercenary sounds like the right word for me. Though maybe Sis was pissed because that's a half hour of time she didn't get with him? That's a whole other ball game.
posted by kitten magic at 11:05 PM on January 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

In my family culture people who are financially stable offer to buy each other dinner and drinks and such just as a way to take care of each other and do nice things for each other. And in this case your sister's boyfriend did a nice thing for you (went out of his way to try to troubleshoot a problem) and your sister didn't see you thank him or offer to do a nice thing for him back (one example of which would be buying him dinner, though not the only acceptable one - as your sister says "offer dinner *or anything*").

Unless this has a whole lot more trends and direct mercenary behavior behind it, I think you're overthinking it rather a lot. Your sister felt guilty for taking up her boyfriend's time to do work and didn't see you express appreciation or try to reciprocate that generosity of spirit. It doesn't mean you didn't express it, it just means she didn't see it happen and so feels uncomfortable about what her boyfriend might think. She might also have some negative expectations around you or family, siblings often do. And you might have some negative expectations around her making you blow this up as well.
posted by Lady Li at 11:31 PM on January 11, 2018 [3 favorites]

Prof. Dan Arielly, who studies behavioral economics (essentially the irrationalities of human behavior that belie traditional rational-actor economics), calls this "market norms" vs. "social norms" in his terrific book "Predictably Irrational."

I talk about it here in another comment, with links, so I'll just link you there instead.

In a nutshell, though, once you commit to market norms, it's difficult to return to social norms. If I were you, I'd return market norms in kind, and see how they like it.
posted by Sunburnt at 12:04 AM on January 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

This is a huge red flag of an unhealthy relationship, no matter what kind of relationship it is. It's not likely to be something you're going to be able to change the dynamic of; rather, to stop being taken advantage of - because that IS what is going on, underneath - you'll have to simply stop allowing them to do it. Which generally means removing their opportunity - and generally results in a great deal of guilt being thrown at you because of "how much they've done for you".
posted by stormyteal at 12:53 AM on January 12, 2018

In some cultures, it's common to thank someone for doing a favor by buying them a meal. If I did a favor for someone and then we went to dinner together on the same day, I would expect them to at least offer to pay, and I would absolutely do the same if the roles were reversed. I wouldn't consider it a financial transaction, though -- handing the friend/family-member the equivalent amount in cash would be very weird. And in many cases, just saying "dinner's on me next time we go out" is enough, even if it's not likely to happen any time soon.
posted by bradf at 1:14 AM on January 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

money is the preferred way to show gratitude and appreciation for her.

this is not what that example shows or what she said. even if there are other times when she hypothetically had financial compensation in mind, and maybe there were, this is not what that was. or she would have said, hey, why didn't you offer to pay him half his hourly rate for his time.

her idea of politeness is not universal but it's pretty standard. like if your friend helps you move, you feed them or take them out somewhere. this is to say thank you, because just saying the words "thank you" with your face are for when someone passes you the salt or tells you what time it is. Substantial favors demand substantial thanks. there is a third exalted level where the favor is so great that you can't possibly repay it with equivalent value and then you're back to just words again, but they have to be really good words. this isn't that high-level a favor.

and "would have been happy to" do something equally nice for him is nothing unless you had some actual thing in mind. hypothetically, I would be happy to do lots of wonderful things for lots of people, but nobody knows that unless I do them.

the half-hour's help isn't a big deal at all, this isn't like a life-debt here. it is not necessarily something everybody would think needs a reciprocal gesture, especially if he offered and you didn't ask. but your sister's comment isn't a big deal either. except that everybody hates to be lectured about manners and if she does that a lot, sure it's annoying and maybe pseudo-parental and so doubly annoying. but still not about money.
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:18 AM on January 12, 2018 [16 favorites]

Your wording it came up that he could take a look at it for me doesn't make it clear whether he volunteered his time, or she did. Most people who work in IT don't particularly enjoy doing work-like stuff in their spare time. This is not something he happens to know about; this is his job and he normally gets paid for it. Offering to pay his dinner would have been the perfect gesture to acknowledge that. He could have taken the offer or declined it, that doesn't matter: it would have been a very good idea to offer.
And if she volunteered his time, it makes sense that she feels involved, because she probably feels like she set him up for doing a 'thankless' job for nothing.

She was not saying that you should have paid him. Buying someone dinner is not the same as giving someone money even if the net effect is the same.

I'm sorry, but I agree with your sister here. There are possibly other and better examples of what you mean, but this one isn't doing it for me.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:48 AM on January 12, 2018 [13 favorites]

Also, she is not the one doing you a favour in this case; he is.
She is not asking for compensation for herself, but for him. That makes a difference here.
And he is not really family. He can't be expected to be as loyal/generous towards you as he might be towards his own family.

I just think that a better example would probably do your point of view more justice.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:51 AM on January 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

My sister's boyfriend works in IT and it came up that he could take a look at it for me and see if there was anything that could be done for it.

As a semi-retired IT professional, I can tell you that Family IT Support is a standing joke amongst we People Who Do Something With Computers. We're all expected to be able to fix any and every IT-related issue by applying our Dark IT Magicks, even when it's got nothing at all to do with our own particular branch of IT, and there always seem to be particular family members who glom on and expect endless amounts of time devoted to fixing their often self-inflicted IT woes.

Not saying that this is you - not by any means! but it's a really common dynamic.

He can't be expected to be as loyal/generous towards you as he might be towards his own family.

That's true. On the other hand,

I brought it to him and he spent a half hour trying different things, but to no avail

Every competent computer fixit person I know, myself included, works on a no fix, no fee basis.
posted by flabdablet at 6:33 AM on January 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

I agree with the many commentators here that in your example, it’s you that have would have committed the faux pas had that happened within my social circles.

Someone who you don’t know well was coerced on your behalf (no matter how gently) into doing their paid job for you for free. In my social circles you acknowledge this by offering something some token in exchange. (Usually a bottle of wine or other alcohol of preference. Food also works) Paying for their meal was the ideal opportunity & you failed to do so.

This isn’t paying someone for their labour: it’s a token offered to acknowledge that someone has generously laboured on your behalf without pay. This is why you can't offer a cash token: If someone does $150 of labour (plucking a number out of the air) then offering them $15 would be insulting. Offering them a $15 bottle of wine on the other hand (or paying their share of a meal) is a token of recognition that underlines your appreciation of their generosity. This absolutely isn’t an exchange of value that’s going on - it’s a small counter gift that recognises the size of the gift given in the first place.

As flabdablet says, given that they work failed to achieve the hoped for end, the boyfriend might well refuse the offer but social etiquette in my circles would require that you make it regardless - in some sense the making of it is more important than the actual giving.
posted by pharm at 6:48 AM on January 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

In my social circle/family, not offering to pay for dinner would have been a huge faux pas. It's on whoever did you the favor to turn down an offer for dinner/six pack/cookies, "but I'd already said thank you!" is not an excuse not to offer.

It may work differently in your social circle, obviously, but if I were your sister I would have been mortified and in NO WAY concerned about actual monetary compensation.
posted by lydhre at 7:12 AM on January 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Is there a disparity between the financial situation of you and your other family members? A version of this was a recurring issue in my sister's relationship with my parents (and with me, to an extent).

My sister didn't have a lot of money. My parents had some. So my mom and dad would do favors for her by watching her kids, or driving her places, or taking her family to dinner. Whether true or not, my parents started to perceive it as though they were most often on the giving end and she was most often on the receiving end, and they started to keep an imaginary tally. On the flip side, my sister thought "you offered to do this, you have the money to spend, you get to see your grandkids this way, and I do a ton of non-monetary stuff."

Maybe this isn't your situation at all, but a common refrain I heard from my parents when they were venting to me was "she never even OFFERS to pay." And they said it knowing that she couldn't really pay and they wouldn't really ask her to.
posted by AgentRocket at 7:33 AM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

My son's uncle is a former mechanic, he patched my tire for me when I didn't even know there was an issue while I was visiting, he's given me advice on repairs, he checks on my smoke detectors, and he'll check my son's carseat, all without me asking. I get him and his family nicer than I need to gifts as part of showing my appreciation, he doesn't drink or I'd be getting him beer each time.

I think offering to pay for his meal or buy him a drink or dessert (as your budget allows) would have been nice in this case on top of the thank you.
posted by lafemma at 8:52 AM on January 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

It reads ambiguously, but did your sister offer the boyfriend's services, or did he? If she offered, the way to solve this is to not let her volunteer "favors" that other people actually have to do the labor for.
posted by hollyholly at 9:06 AM on January 12, 2018

Every competent computer fixit person I know, myself included, works on a no fix, no fee basis.

I am a competent computer fixit person and this is not always true for me, depending what is wrong. Having a list of 30 minutes worth of things that are NOT the problem is, itself, work. As everyone says above, "hey can you help fix my computer?" is definitely one of those weird edge cases in this general world of favors because

- the people who do them tend to be well paid
- the problems tend to be complicated and may involve doing a lot of work that doesn't go anywhere
- the people who offer the services are sometimes not the people who DO the services (this is really the crux here)

I think this hinges on a few things

- your relationship with your sister and whether this is a thing she does or whether this was a one-off
- who offered the help
- general relationship to money of everyone

Because yeah, in my world, you offer to do someone a solid in return for them giving you free help, in my book. Dinner was a timely opportunity for that. To my mind the scenario would play out like peacheater outlines. You offer, they refuse, everyone feels appreciated. It's not extra rude that you didn't (I disagree with your sister here) but it would have been a good opportunity.
posted by jessamyn at 10:58 AM on January 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think there's two things going on with this example:
1. Your sister didn't do you a favor; her boyfriend did. So, this isn't a "between family members" favor, but rather -- at most -- a "between friends" favor. I might or might not offer something in return for my sister helping me out for something (depending on the situation), but I would 100% offer her husband a token thing if he did me a favor, especially something related to his job.
2. In my opinion, offering to pay for someone's dinner isn't a financial transaction, even though there is money involved. To me, there's a HUGE difference between offering to buy someone a meal (or a drink or a coffee, or bringing them a six pack of beer, or whatever) and shoving $20 in cash in their hand. Offering to cover a dinner check seems like a reasonable favor on a similar level to working on a computer for half an hour. And, the boyfriend may have not even said yes -- it's the gesture that matters.

Also, this phrasing is SO VAGUE: "it came up that he could take a look at it for me"
Did the boyfriend actually proactively offer to do you a favor? Or did you ask/hint that you'd like him to do so?

You also say that you "do a lot of unpaid emotional labor for them and I don't ask to be compensated." Do you do a lot of unpaid emotional labor for your sister's boyfriend? Maybe so, and feel free to pull back on that if you're feeling taken advantage of by this guy. But if what you mean here is "I do a lot of unpaid emotional labor for my sister, so I think her boyfriend owes me free computer help," that's pretty off in my opinion. They are separate people.
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:28 PM on January 12, 2018 [4 favorites]

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