There are favors you can ask of most anyone, such as giving the time or borrowing a quarter.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are the big favors, the ones any friend dreads hearing. At the top of the list for me are these: "We're moving, are you free on Saturday afternoon to help?" Or "I'm painting my bedroom/kitchen/every bathroom in the house. Do you think you might be able to lend a hand?"
Often, these favors are couched in rose-colored terminology. It's not just an afternoon of painting, it's a painting party. Truthfully, though, everyone knows no matter how much free pizza and beer your host supplies, helping someone move or paint is a guaranteed day of hard labor, and a wasted weekend to boot.
You only agree to these favors for two reasons - either you're repaying a debt or you foresee a time in the immediate future in which your friend can, in turn, help you move or paint.
Back before I understood the subtleties of moving and painting parties, I always felt honored when someone asked me to help out. Wow, I'd think. This person considers me a close enough friend to trust with moving her antique Christmas ornament collection.
Not until the next morning, when I woke up with an aching back and thighs, did I realize the extent of my naivete. Being chosen for the moving crew is a dubious honor at best.
I recently found myself employing two friends to help paint a bedroom and bathroom. About halfway through, I realized I now owe these two big time. Not only were they helping me paint, three years ago they'd helped me move into our new house.
I felt bad until I started playing the rationalization game. After all, isn't every individual painting and moving job weighted differently?
Sure, I'd only helped Friend A move one time, but I'd helped her move from a fourth-floor apartment with no elevator. Certainly that had to count for more than a typical move. And I helped Friend B paint her kitchen red - five coats of glossy red.
Of course, during the rationalizing, I conveniently forgot about how my own move involved two flights of stairs to reach the front door, a couch with a built-in recliner on each end (aka the world's heaviest couch) and an extremely bendable mattress.
Over the years, I've developed a good way to take advantage of this particular type of social capital.
After you put in your time, never complain about how hard you worked to move your friend's washing machine down a flight of stairs. Instead, just mention the experience occasionally to keep it fresh in your friend's mind.
Try something like this - "Remember how much fun we had when we painted your kitchen? How many coats did it take to cover that awful orange again?"
Then, very casually change the topic.
"So, what are your plans on Saturday?"
E-mail Shelley Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org.