As infants, the word 'no' is one of the first we learn to speak. Yet as we get older, it becomes strangely more and more difficult to say. When a friend's car needs a push start we don't think twice about lending a hand even if we're suffering with a double hernia. Similarly, we're not likely to refuse a motorist's request for directions when he pulls up beside us on a country lane. We feel obliged to have a stab at it, even if we've no idea. Because like the girl in Oklahoma!, we just can't say no.
So given that we know this about ourselves, why is it we're so reluctant to ask others for help? Maybe we're too proud or stubborn, but more likely it's because we're afraid of being embarrassed. Asking others for help in everyday life could show our weaknesses or lead to rejection, so we're reluctant to do it. However, a study this year by Francis Flynn of Stanford University and Vanessa Lake of Columbia University concluded that we tend to grossly underestimate how willing others are to help us out.
In their studies they got people to ask others to fill in questionnaires, to accompany them to the gym to work out and even to lend them their mobile phone for the day. But first, they also asked them to estimate how likely they thought people were to agree to their requests. The results showed that most people underestimated their likely success rate by as much as 100%. In other words, twice as many people were happy to help them out than the participants had imagined.
What they hadn't factored into the equation was the social pressure people feel to say yes to requests from friends. However much they don't want to do it, it's much more awkward and embarrassing to say no. So the conclusion is clear - if you want help, just ask. Remember, most people take pleasure in helping others out from time to time and are unlikely to say no to a reasonable request.
However, a word of warning. On the occasions when you need help yourself, think about whether providing assistance is going to prove burdensome to others. And if so, consider ways of making it easier for them to say no. But then, as they say in Newcastle, 'Shy bairns get nowt.'
And if a complete stranger asks you to act as a look-out, start up a getaway car or carry something through Customs on their behalf, it's probably best to just say no. After all, there's helpful and there's just plain stupid.
Philip Hesketh is a professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion and author of Life's a Game so Fix the Odds.