Reasonable people end up in truly unreasonable situations all the time. Situations in which someone is asking something big and inappropriate of them.
Sometimes when this happens, there’s a moment of clarity. A strong rebellion that onsets. Where you find yourself saying, “No. Screw you.” Perhaps for the first time ever to the person in question.
Other times, you will have far more trouble saying no. Especially because the person asking you might say something like, “Why are you being like this? You’ve never said no to me before.”
That’s the trouble with these kinds of inappropriate requests. They usually don’t come out of nowhere. Out of left field.
Instead, the big asks come after a long pattern of established trust. And a process of doing small, increasingly larger favors for the person.
It’s only when the favors reach a certain threshold do we feel uncomfortable. And by that point, it becomes much harder to say no than it would have had they made the inappropriate request right off the bat.
The Sudden Salesman Tries to Close the Deal
This is sometimes known as the foot in the door theory. People gain social access to you by being reasonable and harmless at the outset. They get their proverbial foot in your door.
Over time, they build up social capital through establishing rapport. And perhaps they make small requests as a way to get you to rehearse doing favors for them (because strangely, due to a force called cognitive dissonance, when you do a favor for someone, you like them more and not the other way around).
And then when it comes time to close the big expensive sale (so to speak), you’re far more likely to say yes. When they would have had the door slammed in their face had they proposed the sale the moment you opened it.
The Boiling Frog
There’s another framing of this idea that’s very popular known as the fable of the boiling frog.
Basically, it’s said that if you put a frog directly into a pot of boiling water, it will jump right out.
However, if you put the frog into a pot of room temperature water and then bring it to a boil gradually, it won’t realize that the temperature is rising, and instead of jumping out, it will stay in and be cooked.
While this isn’t literally true (sorry, the frog will jump out even if you raise the temperature gradually), it’s a useful metaphor for explaining how bad we are at recognizing threats if they onset gradually, rather than all at once.
The person who is nice for a very long time but gradually turns sinister is a bigger danger than the person who sidles up acting like a jerketsu on day 1.
A friend who becomes a frenemy over time might torment someone for longer and take longer to dispel than an instant enemy.
There’s also the matter of creeping concessions to consider. This is a term I first learned from the Polyamorous Misanthrope, who explained it this way:
Creeping concessions, in my experience, are one-time concessions or favors that are then established as precedents from then on. Negotiation is different entirely and has to do with setting agreements on a global scale.
Joe: Will you pick me up at four in the morning tomorrow?
(Three days later)
Joe: I need you to pick me up at four in the morning tomorrow.
Maria: Sorry, hon, I’ve got a long day and am not going to be able to do that.
Joe: What the hell? You did it last Monday! I thought we’d agreed that you’d pick me up when I asked!
That’s a creeping concession, though that one is so big and obvious that chances are most people would stop punch it unless the relationship had gotten so bad that their crazy had become your normal. Chances are good that if someone has poor relationship skills, or worse, is deliberately trying to take advantage of you, you’ll see much smaller increments in the process. But even so, the process is quite the same.
It’s the old case of “if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile.” Or, as Laura Joffe Numeroff’s classic picture book puts it:
If you give a mouse a cookie, then the mouse will ask for a glass of milk.
When you give the mouse the milk, he will ask you for a straw.
When the mouse is finished he will ask for a napkin.
And so on. By the end of the ordeal, the mouse will have a self-portrait hanging in your house and be begging for another cookie.