“Can you spare a dollar for a bus ride?”
A guy asked me that question this morning while going for a walk. I hear it every so often when I’m in Jersey City. It’s rare that I give a person money when asked in that way. Yeah, I’m a terrible person. I know.
It got me thinking. When I have given money, why did I do it? I can recall three vivid instances in my life where I gave money to someone who asked. There were more (I hope), but these come to mind. Let’s dissect what made me do it and why I was persuaded to do so.
Example #1 – July/August 1994; backpacking through Europe
Yeah, traveling back twenty two years. My brain was working some serious overtime.
Walking through a train station (or whatever they’re called there) in London, England and an elderly woman handed me a flower. I took it, somewhat bewildered. and was about to hand it back and say no thank you. She wanted money from me. It was obvious. I was on a tight budget and couldn’t afford charitable donations. She put her hands down (implying the flower was not returnable) looked at me and said “for the children.”
I quickly handed over a few pounds. Good luck trying to resist that one.
Lesson: Obviously, reciprocity was a key driver. She gave me a flower and I handed over money. But that wasn’t the only thing at play. After all, I tried to give it back. When she said “For the children” I was toast. It tugged on my heartstrings. Who could resist that? The combination of reciprocity and emotion won me over.
Example #2 – Early 2000’s; New York City
I was living in NYC at the time and I was walking down the street. There was a homeless man who saw me walk by and said: “Hey buddy, could you spare $100?”
I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically. I thanked him for making me laugh and gave him $5.
Lesson: This is a tough one. He used humor and it worked. It’s tough to pull off and I never recommend trying but he did it. Again, reciprocity. He did something for me. He made me laugh, brightened up my day. I felt I owed him something for it. Plus, he caught me by surprise. Getting asked for $1 happens all the time, but not $100?
Example #3 – 2016; New York City
Again, walking down the street and a stranger comes up to me and asks me which subway can take her to [some destination]. Then she asked me another logistical question about the subway. Next, she threw in an unrelated comment. I don’t remember the exact words but it was something like: “you look a lot like my younger brother. Weird.” Then she asked another logistical question about the subway. She seemed like someone from out of town who needed help and so I obliged. When it seemed like she was about to disappear she said: “Oh, do you have another dollar for the subway. I only have credit cards and I don’t have time to find an ATM” – I quickly handed over a dollar without thinking.
Lesson: She buttered me up with seemingly unrelated questions about the subway schedule and logistics. In between there was the comment about looking like her brother. Then she gave me a valid reason why she needed a dollar. It’s that old “because” trick where you add a reason why you need a favor and it makes it more likely they comply.
If I thought about it for a second I would have realized what she was doing. This was NYC. There are ATM’s all over the place. The metro-card machines take credit cards, but she disrupted my thought processes with her questions. I didn’t “slow down” to think logically. Those questions and the comment were merely relationship builders. It all set the stage for her finale where she asked for a dollar.
As I was walking away, I turned around at the end of the block and saw her talking to another stranger. It got me thinking… how much does she make each day with this scam?
You’ve heard me say it before. It’s helpful to take a step back and observe your behavior as an outsider. You’ll soon figure out what makes you (and all of us) tick