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Urban Etiquette

Ellen Vanstone answers your questions about the annoying behaviours, poor manners and impatient encounters that dot the days of a city dweller.

Urban Etiquette: Help! I don't want to spend my free time doing my job — for free.

I'm <em>an</em> IT guy. Not your personal IT guy.

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Ani Castillo / For Metro

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Dear Ellen,

I work in IT and some of my friends are always asking me to help them with their computer problems. I don’t want to be a jerk, but if I said yes to everyone I’d be working on IT problems after work and every weekend. How do I politely tell them I don’t want to spend all my free time doing my job for free?


Dear DX,

In my previous job as an editor, I often had the same problem. People would ask me to read their books, or scripts, or essays, or résumés, or grant applications, with few of them offering to pay for my time. Some seemed to think they were doing me a favour by allowing me to see their unpublished genius. Others had no idea how much time and effort it takes to edit any kind of writing, in any format, long or short.

And then there were the special cases: individuals who asked for “editing” but who really wanted gobs of unqualified praise, and who were outraged when I dared to suggest changes. Needless to say, these uncharming egomaniacs were the worst writers of all.

I still get asked to read people’s stuff but, with a couple of rare exceptions, I usually say no. I politely, but firmly, tell people the truth: I’m swamped with other work, and I simply don’t have time.

You’re in a trickier position because people can invite you over for drinks or snacks, and then hit you up on the spot. If this happens, your response will depend on what kind of relationship you’re dealing with. If it falls into the casual (disposable) category, tell the person “no, sorry, I leave the IT stuff at work,” and let the chips fall where they may. 

If it’s in the valued-friendship category, go ahead and work on their IT problem for a set time (five to 15 minutes). Then, if you still haven’t solved it, recommend a service they can call. If they keep expecting free IT services every time you go over, consider moving them into the disposable-friendship category.

Don’t do free work for people unless there’s a quid pro quo you find acceptable, or unless you sincerely want to lend a hand, in which your generosity will benefit you more than anyone. 

But to feel coerced into “helping” a friend because you’re too timid to say no, and then stew with silent, toxic resentment that ultimately ruins the friendship… well, that’s not good manners at all.

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