Unpacking a favor


Last night I was chatting with a friend (who shall remain nameless) over IM. He told me a small group was going to meet for dinner and invited me to come meet them there at 8:30 pm. I asked him what time he would be showing up, and he said 8:30. “Really?” I asked. Because as much as I like this friend (and it is a lot), in the entire 5 months I have been in New York and through the many times we have met up, he is never on time unless I am meeting him at his house. He told me that yes he would be there at 8:30 and balked a bit when I suggested that he was never on time. He assured me that he had never missed a flight. “Great,”, I said, “so what you are telling me is that airlines are more important to you than friends.” I explained to him that I didn’t care one bit what time we agreed to meet. I only cared that whatever that time was, we would be there per our commitment. Why was it ok to always make people wait an average of 15 minutes extra for you? I explained that to me it was quite rude, a way of saying to the other person that their time wasn’t as valuable as yours.

This apparently touched a nerve in him, causing him to search his memory for any “rude” thing I may have done to him in the past. What he hit upon was quite a surprise to me.

About 4 months ago, in an email, he asked if I could do his company a “favor” and translate a brochure into French. He asked me to estimate how long it would take and if I had the time to do it. Being that I had just arrived in New York and was quite broke, I assumed it was a potential contract for work, so I calculated the number of hours it would take me to do it (about 3) and sent him an estimate for the work, thanking him for thinking of me. I never heard back from him and had forgotten about the entire thing.

That is, until he brought it up last night. Apparently, I was being “rude” for not doing this work for his business for free. And then he told me it really didn’t matter at all, he had completely “let it drop”.

“Oh really, then why bring it up now?” I asked. “Clearly this is something that has been bothering you.” And being irked I suppose at being called on being late had jogged his memory of a perceived slight. I was fascinated.

“What else should I be doing as a favor for your business?” I asked. “Free web site design?”  He said he would never ask me to do free web design. So why was the translation work different? Perhaps he thought it was a 5 minute job or something (which if it was, I probably would have done it for free), but I clearly wrote in the email that I thought it would take me 3 hours. Perhaps, knowing how I love the French language, he just thought it would be “fun” for me? I asked under what circumstances I should rely on his professional services for free? No information of that type was forthcoming. The best I got from him was “Anything within reason.” Which is funny, since that is a completely subjective measure.

I told him there were any number of personal things I would do for him, such as watching his apt, bringing in mail, walking his dog if necessary, talking him up to friends, bringing him chicken soup when sick, etc. Ultimately, I suppose it (very roughly) comes down to the following: If it is personal, I am willing to do a lot. If it is something for your business (ie something you will make money on) you should probably be willing to pay for it in some fashion. If for example, he had needed help with understanding a french tourist brochure or visa application for a trip I would have been more than happy to spend a few minutes explaining it to him. But to translate a brochure for selling his product? It never occurred to me that this would be the kind of thing someone would ask a friend to do for free, without so much as a “I’ll buy you dinner” offer. And if somehow the fee I asked for this contract was too much, I certainly never got a counter of any sort. So it was quite surprising that this friend had waited 4 months to bring this up, and only in the context of being called on being late all the time.

Of course there are exceptions to the personal/business split above, and they happen all the time. There are all kinds of things we do which help each other in business that are quite easy, such as talking up a product, introducing people, giving advice and feedback, etc. All of these things I have done for this friend and others, and I am happy to do them.  There are even cases where I have solved computer problems for people in a work context without getting paid, just chalking it up to good karma.  And I am paid back for these things (by this friend and others) in the same sorts of intangibles.

I am not sure (being that we are all individuals) what goes through the minds of people and how they decide what is “work” and what is not. It is clearly a subjective process. This friend is still my friend, and will be, as I am very fond of him. This event is over in my head and heart, as of this blog post. But I was surprised by his reasoning, and it still escapes me.


  1. Salvador says:

    It doesn’t surprise me that still some people (including friends) confuse the “free” part about being a freelance. I’ve been doing it for 15 years now and I’ve had my share of these kind of situations. By the way, I’m looking for someone to write the French version of my website. No money involved, of course. Can you think of anyone? :)

  2. Joshua Lupkin says:

    Yeah, even if he was disappointed that he did not get the services he wanted for free, this is ridiculous. How about you charge him per minute he is late?