A few days ago, my son came home after ice skating and showed me the bandages he had on his feet.
"Who gave them to you?" I asked.
"The people who work there," he gave me his what-kind-of-question-is-that look.
"So, how did they know you had blisters and needed a bandage?"
"I asked them. How else?"
This conversation reminded me of the research I read on why asking for help is hard and how we often underestimate the willingness of others to help.
The researchers (1) explain how "At some point, even the best of us needs help from others. Yet people often struggle to ask for help, partly because of concerns that others may be unwilling and unhappy to help".
Interestingly, the results showed that people underestimate how positive others will feel after helping others.
Simply said, we are social beings and feel good after helping others.
What can we learn from this research? Whether you're looking for a job, learning how to use a new program at work, or have blisters after ice skating - ask for help when you need it. However, it's important to mention that this research was conducted among adult participants in the USA, a country that is highly individualistic.
Keep reading and find out why this piece of information is relevant.
Why Is Asking For Help Difficult?
Asking for help can be difficult for a variety of reasons, and we can approach this topic from two perspectives - external (people around us) and internal (ourselves).
Let's start with the first one. Similarly to asking questions in general (2), people see asking for help as a sign of weakness or incompetence - especially in individualistic cultures. They may worry that others will see them as unable to handle a situation on their own, which can threaten their self-esteem and self-concept. Additionally, people may be concerned about imposing on others or creating a burden for them, which can make them reluctant to ask for help.
Another reason comes from within. Sometimes, people have difficulty identifying and articulating their needs, which can make it challenging for them to ask for help effectively. For example, they may not know what kind of help they need or how to explain their situation clearly.
We could say that people often find it hard to ask for help due to factors such as self-esteem, self-concept, and the fear of imposing on others.
However, asking for help can be seen differently across cultures.
Asking For Help Across Cultures
This section describes the differences between collectivistic and individualistic cultures when it comes to asking for help.
Just a brief explanation:
Individualism (versus collectivism) is the preference of people to belong to a loosely knit society where importance is placed on the self and autonomy. In opposition, collectivist structures emphasise interdependent social units, such as the family, rather than the self.
You can read more about different cultures in this article.
Now, back to asking for help.
In collectivistic cultures, asking for help is viewed as a sign of strength and self-awareness. For example, in many Asian cultures and countries like Portugal and Mexico, asking for help is seen as a way to build and maintain relationships with others. In these cultures, people tend to rely on their social networks for support and assistance, and asking for help is seen as a way to strengthen these connections.
In contrast, in individualistic cultures such as the United States and Germany, asking for help is often viewed as a sign of weakness or a lack of self-sufficiency. In these cultures, people tend to value independence and self-reliance and may be less likely to ask for help because they don't want to be perceived as needy or dependent.
Additionally, in some cultures, people may be less likely to ask for help from strangers and may prefer to rely on family or close friends for support. In other cultures, people may be more likely to seek help from authority figures or experts.
It's important to note that cultural norms and values around asking for help can vary within a culture, and individuals may have their own unique perspective on this.
In summary, the perception of asking for help can vary across cultures and may be influenced by factors such as the emphasis on individualism or collectivism, the importance placed on building and maintaining relationships, and the willingness to seek help from strangers or authority figures.
What the Research Says
There are several researchers who have conducted research on asking for help across different cultures.
One notable researcher in this field is Dr Chi-yue Chiu, a social psychologist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Dr. Chiu has conducted research on how cultural values influence help-seeking behaviour and has found that people from collectivistic cultures, such as Asian cultures, tend to be more likely to seek help from others than those from individualistic cultures, such as Western cultures. He has also found that people from collectivistic cultures tend to prefer seeking help from close relationships rather than strangers and tend to value social support more than self-reliance.
Another researcher who has conducted research on help-seeking behaviour across cultures is Dr Hazel Rose Markus, a social psychologist at Stanford University. Dr Markus has studied how cultural values influence self-construals or the way people perceive themselves in relation to others. In one of her studies (3), she found that the Japanese (collectivistic culture) rank among the least likely to intervene to help a stranger in a nonemergency situation, while Americans (individualistic culture) rank among the most likely. However, when the need for help was clear or when people asked for help, the Japanese helped as much as or sometimes more than Americans.
In addition, Dr Mark R. Leary (4), a social psychologist at Duke University, has also done research on how people's self-esteem, self-worth, and self-evaluation influence their decision to ask for help and how these factors are related to culture.
As described at the beginning of this article, Zhao's research (1) showed that we shy away from asking for help because we don't want to bother other people, assuming that our request will feel like an inconvenience to them. But often, the opposite is true: People want to make a difference in people's lives, and they feel good – happy even – when they can help others.
These researchers have contributed to the understanding of how cultural values and norms can shape help-seeking behaviour and how individuals from different cultures may have different perspectives on asking for help.
Asking for help can be difficult, especially in Western cultures, where asking for help is often viewed as a sign of weakness or a lack of self-sufficiency. However, many people are willing to help others when asked. More than we think! Studies have shown that people often enjoy helping others and feel good about themselves when they are able to assist someone in need. Additionally, people may be more willing to help when they perceive that the person asking for help is genuinely in need and has put in the effort to solve the problem.
One key takeaway:
- whether you're looking for a job, learning how to use a new program at work, or have blisters after ice skating - ask for help when you need it.
Suggested reading on the topic
(1) Zhao, X., & Epley, N. (2022). Surprisingly Happy to Have Helped: Underestimating Prosociality Creates a Misplaced Barrier to Asking for Help. Psychological Science, 33(10), 1708–1731. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976221097615
(2) Berger, W. (2014). A more Beautiful Question: A power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. New York/London/New Delhi/Sydney: Bloomsbury.
(3) Niiya Y, Handron C and Markus HR (2022) Will This Help Be Helpful? Giving Aid to Strangers in the United States and Japan. Front. Psychol. 12:784858. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.784858
(4) Leary, M. (2005). Sociometer theory and the pursuit of relational value: Getting to the root of self-esteem. European Review of Social Psychology, 16, 75-111. European Review of Social Psychology. Vol 16. 16. 10.1080/10463280540000007.