On this very Happy Thanksgiving Day -- happy that it's here, happy that I have so much reason to be thankful -- I thought it would make sense to add a small item to my once-active weekly column, Office Talk. Some of you will remember: this was a regular rant that I contributed to my blog, focusing on the reasons why people people use odd words and phrases in the office. As I have explained many times before, it's not a column about whether an office cliche is acceptable (that's not even close to the work I do). It's more about why office people use the cliche in the first place. If you are interested in cliches that I've already wrestled with, go here. But in the meantime, the cliche today that's dominating discussion in my Puerto Rican household -- in the middle of frying up everything in sight -- is "The Ask."
If you are an office worker -- or if in your regular line of work you need to talk with office workers, even if for the most part you are clad in pajamas, like most of my readers -- it is very, very likely that you have encountered this phrase at least once in the past year. That's roughly the timeframe, I am guessing, that the phrase --which originated in the world of fundraising -- has entered the mainstream office lexicon. In fact, it was from a fundraising professional -- an in-law who I will see this evening for a Thanksgiving dinner in San Francisco -- that I first heard the phrase ... oh maybe 12 years ago. At the time, he was heading up development for a large (well funded) law school, and we had the opportunity to work on a project together. Along the way, I learned some of the secrets of his trade, most notably the great effort that's required to raise very, very large philanthropic gifts. What I learned: if you are on the receiving end of a such a gift, it's unlikely that you have gotten there without a long, extended courtship between you and the gift-giver. And it is only after the relationship matures to a certain point that you even make the the formal request for the gift -- and note that it is often you, not the giver, who initiates the conversation about the transaction -- which is known as "The Ask." (For more detail on how this is done in the world of fundraising, see Laura Frederiks, "The Ask: How to Ask Anyone for Any Amount For Any Purpose").
There are several things worth noting about this phase. First, it should be painfully obvious to anyone hearing it for the first time that we have done something rather funny with language. Quite obviously, by saying "The Ask," we have transformed a verb into a noun. But this isn't just a trick, or a sloppy use of words. There's something bigger going on -- what sociologists like to call "reification," which Wiktionary defines as "the consideration of an abstract thing as if it were concrete, or of an inanimate object as if it were living." Asking for a gift in the world of fundraising has become such a big deal that the actual request itself has taken on a life of its own. When you are in the word business, you can't help but notice things like this. But I am betting you noticed, too, even if you aren't in the word biz.
But second, and far more interesting, is the role that we have ascribed to this thing -- the request for a gift -- to which we have given life. You'll recall that in fundraising, the courtship precedes "The Ask," which very often precedes "The Gift." It's worth noting what actually goes on during the courtship, where the receiver educates the giver on all she will receive as a result of the substantial gift. In the case of philanthropic giftgiving, it is almost about the persistent contribution, to a persistent community, that will benefit everyone (think immortality) long after the giver is gone. More precisely, it is about the bond that's created and sealed by the reciprocal transaction. As Marcel Mauss, the great French sociologist, observed, gift-giving creates a bond with the giver and receiver that is far stronger than the typical cash-for-goods transaction. And it's because a gift almost always implies that the receiver will give something big -- bigger than cash, to be redeemed later -- in return. Which is what makes the role of "The Ask" so important. The long courtship -- during which the nature of the bond and the reciprocal benefits are made clear -- needs to be consummated with a gesture as real and ceremonious -- imagine yourself ring in hand, on one knee -- as The Gift itself. It's a big deal to Ask for such a large Gift, and if you do not approach the matter with utmost respect and decorum, you might find yourself hurrying back to the jeweler.
Which leads me to the third point, the reason why I have chosen this phrase for "Office Talk" on this Thanksgiving Day edition. When we use the phrase "The Ask" in business, we are referring to situations where it's imperative to take great care in asking for someone's help. Because in this increasingly busy, interconnected world where you can ask almost anyone for any 'amount' for any purpose, it's way too easy to become a nudge. I was reminded of this recently, when talking to a client about getting a celebrity to contribute a video to a communications campaign that we had recently undertaken. The celebrity -- a friend and fan of the organization -- was already on board. But our client was concerned that the kind of video we were requesting would require so much work that we'd essentially run out of credit with the celebrity. "You only get once 'Ask' with this guy ... don't use it up," my client explained. Indeed. You only get one Ask -- with a capital A -- with most people today. And though it's better to give than it is to receive, it pays to know how to start the conversation. A bad Ask is an annoyance. A good Ask is more like a gift.