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When offering to help hurts

Well, I just learned something that makes me realize that people can be offended by the question, “Can I help you?”

I was listening to Anne’s Zoom meeting and the conversation turned to the power of words and phrases. I heard Anne say, “Until recently, I didn’t know that asking some people “Can I help you?” could offend them.

"This came up in a session on Anti-racism in the Workplace, but it applies to many other situations as well.

“Asking someone if you can help them suggests two things:

  1. You think they need help, and

  2. You think you are capable and qualified to deliver the help they need.

“For people who have been helpless, feel helpless or have ever felt helpless, the question, "Can I help You?" is disempowering. It triggers a response of helplessness, discouragement, disappointment, even anger."

“One attendee told us that this is the essence of Colonialism; we white people think others who are different from us are less competent and therefore must need help and we believe we can help them.

“We don’t even realize we are doing it!

Anne turned to Marie, the only other woman in the Zoom room, and asked,

“Does that question bother you, Marie?”

Marie burst out, “You might be surprised to learn that it really does bother me. As the only woman on this team, in a non-traditional role, it bugs me when men ask if they can help me. No! I don’t need your help; I am perfectly well able to do this job without your help!”

Hmmm. Anne paused and looked around at the other participants (all men) to gauge their reaction to Marie’s outburst. No one said a word.

Anne went on, “If white/caucasian women feel offended or disempowered by the question, imagine how someone in a wheelchair, or someone who is blind feels; never mind those who are Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, LGBTQ2S+, or who come from a place of disadvantage?

“And let’s remember that our intention is not the point – impact is what we need to attend to. I am very sure we mean well when we ask "Can I help you," but in this case our impact is harmful."

“The word ‘help” is the specific trigger."

Anne continued in her calm voice, “While it is reasonable to offer your support or assistance, there are better words to use. In the workplace, we can ask, “What can I do or How can I set you up for success?” or “What tools or support will you need to set you up for success?”

Outside of the workplace, you could ask, “May I give you a hand?” or “May I assist?” both questions essentially ask the same thing in a more acceptable manner.

“It took me a while to adopt that new language myself. I want to do everything I can to be inclusive and welcoming of everyone, so the effort was worth it to me.”

Again, Anne made eye contact with everyone in the Zoom room. Several of the (male) participants apologized; they had no idea offering to help would offend her.

Mary’s boss stepped in and said, “I am truly sorry for my contribution, Mary. I will work towards eliminating that particular question from my lexicon and I challenge the rest of you guys to do the same!”

Both Anne and Marie smiled.

As Maya Angelou said, “When we know better we can do better.” Let’s all aim to do better!


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