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To Get What You Want, Ask in Person

Research says it’s significantly more effective than emailing a request

Most of us dread being asked for money, time commitments or our signature on a clipboard in person because it’s so difficult to say no when you’re staring a nice, pleading person in the face. It’s just so much easier to skip past or delete an emailed request. New research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology confirmed what you might have guessed: Face-to-face requests are 34 times more effective than emailed ones. Interestingly though, people believe email is just as effective as talking in person.

To test the idea, researchers at Western University asked 45 people to approach 10 strangers each to complete a survey — half in person, half via email. They found that not only were folks much more likely to answer the survey if asked in person than in email, but the participants wrongly assumed they’d be just as, if not more, effective in email than face-to-face.

“Why do people think of email as being equally effective when it is so clearly not?” asks one of the researchers, Vanessa K. Bohns, in a piece at Harvard Business Review. Answer: Because they didn’t consider how the request came across via email when they were the ones sending it.

“In our studies, participants were highly attuned to their own trustworthiness and the legitimacy of the action they were asking others to take when they sent their emails,” Bohns writes. “Anchored on this information, they failed to anticipate what the recipients of their emails were likely to see: an untrustworthy email asking them to click on a suspicious link.”

There are other reasons emails aren’t the greatest tool for communication — it’s hard to detect the sender’s intended tone, and it can prolong the conversation, when a face-to-face request may get a simple yes or no back with less handwringing.

But what’s probably more important here is that when you’re talking to someone face to face, the conversation lacks the distance that makes it easier for someone to deceive you, and in fact allows them to be colder and more “purely cognitive,” according to Dana Carney, assistant professor of management at University of California at Berkeley. If you’re trying to get your way, using email is fighting your own premise, essentially providing the recipient a great cop-out.

Talking in person is more humanizing than a digital veil, so it’s logical to assume it’s also more effective at applying pressure. There are other strategies for how to do the asking, but this research presumes you can get a face-to-face meeting with the person you want to persuade, which is not always an option. But at least you know if you want to be effective, you should still (try to) get a meeting.