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I saw my neighbor post on social media that they wanted help with some computer related tasks. We have never met or had any interaction before. I offered to come help them for no compensation. They insisted that they'd be uncomfortable accepting my help without payment.

On one hand, I don't feel comfortable accepting payment because my "pay" would be getting to know some neighbor in my new neighborhood, and having something useful to do on my time off, and I'm quite comfortable financially.

On the other hand, I understand they may not be comfortable accepting payment for from a stranger, or for many other reasons.

I don't want to embarrass or offend either of us, and all our interaction is via email right now, until we meet in person this weekend.

How can I address this situation and foster a friendly relationship?

I thought of suggesting "no worries, just get me a 6 pack of (favorite adult beverage), which can be customary in my culture, but I don't know if this is "assigning work" and adding to their burden, or if they perhaps don't approve of such items.

United States, large Midwest City.

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    How many times did they insist on payment? In some cultures, it can be rude not to offer to pay even if you actually want a service for free. – scohe001 Jul 23 '18 at 18:04
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    They offered once in the original post on social media and once in response to my email that said, among other things, "I wouldn't charge you for this task, I would rather appreciate the chance to meet a new neighbor" – nexus_2006 Jul 23 '18 at 18:13
  • If they're your neighbour, is there something preventing you from simply walking next door and having a normal, honest conversation about it? – Lightness Races with Monica Jul 26 '18 at 9:50
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    Please don’t write answers in comments. It bypasses our quality measures by not having voting (both up and down) available on comments, as well as having other problems detailed on meta. Comments are for clarifying and improving the question; please don’t use them for other purposes. (cc @RaduMurzea) – Mithical Jul 26 '18 at 10:24

10 Answers 10

178

As the "computer person" among neighbors who are...not, I've dealt with this a few times. The person asking for your help does not want to be a freeloader and thus wants to compensate you; you do not want to transform a friendly favor into a business transaction (and anyway you couldn't charge what you normally would in a business setting, so it's awkward).

What has worked for me is to suggest a return favor. In one case I traded setting up a web site for some language tutoring, in another case basic software setup for taking in the mail during a vacation, and in another antivirus setup for some homemade cookies. Since you don't know this neighbor you probably don't know enough to propose something up front, but while you're there, talk and find out more about the person. By the end of your "service call" you should be able to suggest something that the person can do for you that isn't paying you. As a fallback, "buy me lunch" (or a beer) works as both a return favor and a chance to get to know each other a little more, because those are social activities.

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    What does "and anyway you couldn't charge what your work would normally command" mean? How can work command something? – phresnel Jul 25 '18 at 15:11
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    @phresnel sorry about that; I've edited. It's probably an English idiom; your work isn't literally "commanding" anything; it means the fee you would normally collect for that work if you weren't doing someone a favor. – Monica Cellio Jul 25 '18 at 15:17
  • Thanks for the clarification, but it was more the work that confused me; my naive interpretation was like "your employer would normally command" [in Germany, we often say "work" when me mean a fulltime job or the main occupation; interesting to note: "to work" has a broader spectrum of meaning than the noun "work", and can describe anything that needs to be done, whereas the noun usually means the job {I wanted to add examples, but that's too much for the comment section}]. – phresnel Jul 26 '18 at 9:06
  • @phresnel: In English, "work" can mean anything from mechanical action applied to an object, to a task, to your place of employment, to your employment itself, or to a day spent at said place of employment. – Lightness Races with Monica Jul 26 '18 at 9:51
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit: Yep; the confusion was which version of work applies here: workplace, job, the physical act of working :) – phresnel Jul 26 '18 at 10:36
76

I have found that asking for them to donate to a local charity works well. I have some fairly well-off friends who insist on paying me when I help them with computer or technical tasks but I do not really want or need the money so I ask them to donate whatever they would pay me to a local youth organization.

This comes with an added benefit of if they really did not want to pay me I never really know whether they actually donated to that charity on my behalf, and if they do donate then it went to a good cause.

I would go with something like this:

Hey Neighbor_Name, I would be happy just to help out a neighbor and would love to get to know you, but if you insist you can donate to my favorite charity _____ as they are very underfunded and could use the money more than I can.

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    Never heard of this kind of arrangement, and sounds like a good possibility to make both sides happy. This could rise some awkardness, though. For instance: if the charity is supporting something your neighboors don't approve (I'm thinking about religious or political activities that could be against their values, and you might find some other examples of course) – Pac0 Jul 25 '18 at 16:37
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    @Pac0 That is fair, but there are plenty of non-controversial charities. I suggest local kids groups or food banks. – Joe S Jul 25 '18 at 19:42
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One thing that is missing from other answers. When accepting money you will take on responsibility for the result. There are two issues:

  1. If you got paid anything > $0, then neighbor can come knocking on your door saying "I paid for this and now my computer blew up that's your fault!"
  2. If you got paid, you will be expected to do similar work at similar rate in the future, something like "Hey you helped me a lot could you drive 500 miles to help my twice-removed cousin-in-law with same problem, he'll paid you $20 too"

By asking for fair money or by asking for no money at all, you will protect yourself against these situations. This is professional relationship that can become good extra with better neighborly relationship.

On phrasing, you can always promise to "take a look" explicitly mentioning no guarantees, or ask for donation to your favorite charity organization.

20

Compensation is tricky. You don't want to ask too much, and sounds like you're greedy. You don't want to offer too little, and sound like they can take advantage of you any time.

Furthermore you have to judge intentions. If your neighbor has offered to compensate you, it may be that they want to keep your relationship relatively impersonal. Or they might just be socially awkward.

One workaround for this, that can be used in almost any situation, is to suggest that you're giving them a "friends and family discount". This is especially appropriate if you are a professional who ordinarily gets paid for this kind of thing.

Hey John. I'm happy to help you out with your computer problems. Ordinarily I get paid about $130 for this stuff, but I'm going to give you my special discount. How about we go down to the local [pub | bar | craft brewery | etc] afterward and you buy me a couple of rounds, and we'll call it even?

Or pick whatever activity seems good for you, like asking them to pick up something to drink and you both can hang out and watch the game.

If you aren't a professional, then use that to suggest you wouldn't feel comfortable accepting money.

Hey John, thanks for the offer to pay me but since I don't do this kind of thing for a living I wouldn't feel right accepting money. How about instead you order us a large pizza and (something to drink) and after we can hang out and watch the game?

On a separate note: Like it or not, drinking alcohol is a generally approved activity in American culture. If someone has strong feelings about this, it's up to them to voice their disapproval in a socially appropriate way. If it's against their religious beliefs, they've probably had to do this many times and already have a script.

In return, you should never feel embarrassed offering alcohol to someone who doesn't drink. Just play off of it.

Hey, no beer, that's fine. Let's make it a root beer then. I know this place that makes a great craft root beer, you should really try it.

Either way, once you've made an offer you should just relax and wait for them to either accept, or make a counter-offer. It's up to them to figure out how much they are willing to barter vs. what might offend you, and you can relax knowing you'll probably accept whatever they say.

12

I ask them to "pay it forward". I would phrase it similar to, "I am happy to help you just to be neighborly. If you feel like you owe me something, please pay it forward by helping someone else in the future."

I also like donating to charity, but then I have to think about if the charity I like will also be one they will approve of, and so on.

9

My go-to when someone insists on repaying me for something I want to do out of kindness is to suggest grabbing lunch (or dinner, or a beer, whatever is appropriate) together sometime. That way I get to spend more time getting to know them, we're both getting something out of the repayment, and I get to control (somewhat) how much they are actually spending on me by my menu choice. Even better, if you let them choose the location you are letting them set an effective range for what they're comfortable with offering in compensation.

The reason I do this instead of asking for a skills-based return favor is that I find a shared activity lets you get to know the other person much better than trading skills. I took guitar lessons from a good friend of mine, but he had to act very different during the lessons because he was in 'job mode.' I would not have gotten to know him as well if that was how I first interacted with him.

5

I've been in this position several times myself and can see why you find it difficult, because anything that you suggest in return for what you did is kind of the same as asking for payment. Even asking for an unspecified "favour" in the future can seem kind of ominous - in fact some people would find that even more troubling, left wondering about what you might expect them to do and when you might "cash in" the favour.

But many people are left feeling bad if they accept a favour without giving something in return because they feel like they are in somebody's debt, and if your neighbour feels that way then suggesting something they can give you is helping them. It is all down to the way you ask. It sounds from your question that you really don't want or expect anything in return, which is incredibly benevolent of you. So why not say something along the lines of:

I don't need any payment from you. Computers are what I do, so this is no trouble for me at all. I'm happy to use what I know to help my neighbour.

I find this is a good approach for two reasons, firstly because by saying "this is what I do" you are assuring them this isn't difficult, but also it is the most subtle hint that perhaps there is something they do that would be no trouble to offer as a favour in return. Maybe they enjoy gardening and they'll offer to trim your hedge next time they do theirs? This is asking without asking.

If they don't get the subtle hint and still insist they give you something, you have a couple of choices. They may feel bad if they don't give you something, so you could suggest something nominal. You already thought of asking for a beer. Once you meet your neighbour in their home it shouldn't be difficult to assess if buying a beer will be difficult (if they are infirm and can't get to the store easily) or if it might offend them (they're super-strict teetotallers). One of my colleagues who also works in IT says they deal with this situation by asking for the smallest denomination bill without any hesitation - something that anybody can afford - so that is a second option if you don't think that is cheeky.

So you could say something like:

I can't think of anything. Buy me a beer if you really feel you got to give me something, but honestly, I'm just happy to help.

Also there are lots of ways someone can "buy you a beer" without any trouble. They might already have some in the house. Or some might just put the price of a beer in your hand. Of course the polite thing to do is accept it graciously.

4

I have some very real concerns when accepting pay for these kind of computer jobs.

  1. If I charge for it, I´ll have to do bookkeeping and add it to my income tax statement etc. I can´t be bothered to do that for such jobs.
  2. I can only provide such a favor, if and when I have the time. I have a stressful job, and some weeks I just can´t help you - even if your daughters birthday is coming up and your printer is jammed.
  3. I can not provide any warranty and won´t take over any professional liabilities.
  4. As IT Professional my rates are way higher than what is justified for such mundane tasks. That´s why at work, somebody else does look after my machine. So there is no way i´m helping you when we apply economic measures.

I usually explain these things just like that. That makes it clear that not only is it impractical to pay me, it also does not imply any obligations for the future.

I´ll also mention that I really like to unwind to a good scotch or a cigar. Or I would be happy share a home cooked meal. So a lot of options if you feel you owe me and don´t want to leave a favor open.

3

This situation is a tricky one.

Accepting money as compensation is often not a good choice. You can hardly charge them what the work would cost in a professional setting. There are problems with tax and regulations and you might end up in a "warranty" situation, as in "I paid for this, and now it is broken, so you have to fix it for free".

But accepting no compensation at all or going with the "That's what I do, so it is no problem" approach suggested by other answers is not without trouble either.

I have found myself (and seen others with extensive computer knowledge) more than once in the position where others would start to completely depend on my knowledge without even trying to solve the problem on their own. I even had it once that someone demanded that I help them for free, because they believed, since I helped so many others for free, they would also have the right for free in-house service at the other side of the city.

A good friend of mine routinely drives for more than an hour to pick up and repair computers for distant acquaintances without any compensation at all.

To avoid the situation to turn from "I help you every once in a while for free because I'm nice" to someone totally depending on you, I usually stick to these "rules":

  1. Before looking at their devices I first ask them what they have tried so far and if they tried googleing for solutions for the problem. If they can't be bothered to invest some time in fixing their problems, why should I be?
  2. I won't go anywhere only to help. I will help if I am already visiting or otherwise they bring their broken stuff to me.
  3. Whenever I help someone, they stay with me during the time I spend fixing their stuff.
  4. While fixing their stuff, I tell them what I do and try to educate them about what they need to do to fix the problem themselves.
  5. I don't take any compensation, as for me it enough compensation if they learn how to fix their problems themselves.

This might sound harsh, but it serves two purposes:

  1. They appreciate and value the time I invest and don't believe "it's nothing".
  2. Many people actually learn how to solve their problems themselves, even non-technical people. Most problems are actually quite easy to solve, and this strategy is meant to teach that to them.

There was this one time where a very non-technical friend of mine called me because she had internet problems and she started the conversation with "I disconnected and reconnected the WiFi, when that didn't work I tried it with a wired connection. When that didn't work I rebooted the PC and resetted the router and tried again. All this didn't work. What else can I try?".

That is what happens if you educate the people and not only fix their problems.

2

I just tell them I'll have a look at it, and they can make me a cup of tea (or coffee or water for that matter - something trivial) and after I have assessed what is needed, if it's gonna be a big deal, burned out power supply or fried hard drive or other hardware issue, then let them know that they will need to take it to a shop to have it repaired. Especially easy if all you have with you are a small screwdriver and a few disks and/or usb sticks with your "magic" software on them, and if it's something you can take care of with your "magic" software or unjam their printer, then that's worth your time to be a friendly neighbour! Then the repercussions of the next failure are not your problem :)

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