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"Can you please take my picture" power dynamics

You heard this a few times:

Hi, could you please take our pictures?

Maybe you're at a club and it's a bunch of drunk girls, or simply some random people in the street.

But in this and ange it's impossible going through life without someone asking you to snap their photo.

But what does that request mean from a social power dynamics perspective?

Should you take their picture or should you refuse to?

Power Dynamics of Picture-Taking: A Story

It was a chilly summer evening in Brandenburg's Gates, Berlin.

The band had just finished playing and I was looking around.
To be honest, I was a bit on the prowl.

I quickly noticed a girl glancing towards me. Let's call her Madelaine. Madelaine was looking over me a bit too often and a bit too obviously to be just random (undercover sex signals).

She was in a mixed group of around 5-6 guys and girls, all still riding high from the parade and the live band.
I wasn't too sure about her though, I'm not a fan of groups, and my "silent kill mood" wasn't matching their energy levels.

Suddenly a cute blonde near Madelaine's group seemed to appear out of nowhere. All by herself. Nice. I walk straight to her and introduce myself. Her name was Julia. Me and Julia hit it off very well.

We engage in a fun back and forth with lot of teasing, and something was telling me Madelaine wasn't too happy about it.

She was getting louder and louder.
She steps nearby on the edge of our personal zones a few times, absolutely the only one to do so in her group. I'm starting to think it's no coincidence and she's actually actively trying to disturb us, either out of jealousy or purely out of spite.

Eventually, she finally makes her full move to interrupt us. She barges in and asks loudly:

"Can you take our picture?"

And hands me her camera even before we can consent.

Should You Say No To Picture Requests?

Can a request to take someone's picture be a power move?

Sure it can.
And it's the same for any small favor or requests.

There's an inherent power dynamics in all requests.
Most of the times they are hidden because they are small requests and tend to be low effort.

But once stripped of all cues, at the core, it's a party asking for compliance, and another party complying.
The good old dance monkey dance.

There are two different variables you should look at to consider whether you should yes and do the favor or you should say no and refuse.
They are:

  • Effort Levels
  • How They Ask

Effort Levels

Effort levels are key.

They tell us if there is a dancing monkey or if it's a balanced relationship.

The general rule is that the person who needs something should be putting in more effort or, at least, being willing to incomodate themselves with their request.
In this case, the person asking you a favor, should be putting in more effort.

It's important to note that effort has many forms beyond the most obvious physical effort and money or gift exchange.
Here are some other forms of effort and goodwill:

  • Smile
  • "please"
  • "thank you"
  • Head bow

Let's see how these work in the practical situation of taking a picture:

Low Efforts: Do It

Low efforts situations are those situations where taking the picture is easy for you.

It could be because you don't need to do much or because they make it easy for you.

Some examples of low efforts situation are those in which:

  • You don't need to move
  • They come to you for the picture
  • Your weren't doing anything else

High Effort: Rebalance The Relationship

High effort means you have to put in work or inconvenience yourself.
Examples of high effort situations are:

  • Sitting (and need to stand up to take the picture)
  • You are talking to someone (need to stop your convo)
  • You are far away and they expect you to move
  • They ask for many pictures

Notice that these are not high effort per se: standing up is something you do all all the times. But it's high effort to do when you were not planning to do it, when you do it for someone you barely know or don't know at all and when you don't get anything back.

How They Ask

Nicely / Ask Permission: Do It

Asking nicely and thanking you is a form or repaying your effort, which make the relationship more even.
Some way of asking nicely:

  • Emotional effort: non-threatening body language, smile
  • Asking consent before actually handing the camera
  • Providing a "why" or saying a few words
  • Physical effort: walking towards you rather than expecting you to walk

This guy is expanding efforts in crouching down, explaining how it works and showing submissive body language (a great way to engage older women whom might be worried or anxious with younger men) :

Rude: Refuse (Or Rebalance)

Rude can mean actually rude, or not giving anything back for the favor they are asking. Some examples:

  • Handing you the camera without you having said yes
  • No "please", no smile
  • Disrespect for your time

It's worth noting here why implying compliance is rude.

It's rude because of the social meaning behind it. Implying that you will say yes sub-communicates that what they need is more important than what you're doing.
And therein lies the power move.

See, Madelaine, the girl who asked me for a picture in the beginning of the story was not rude in the way you would define a typical rude behavior.
But by barging in the conversation uninvited, with open body language and by handing the camera without waiting for our consent she sub-communicated that our conversation was not very important or, at least, less important than her picture.

Which makes it, effectively, a power move.

Let's see now a few situations for when and how you can accept and when and how you can say no:

Low Effort and Nice Ask: Do it

They ask nicely, it's simple for you to do it... Simply do it.
It's good to be good people.

High Effort and Nice Ask: Ask for Compliance Back

They might be asking nicely, but if you have to put lot of effort you risk looking powerless.

Or that you either don't have important things to do or that you don't value your time and effort too highly.
You can still do it if you're just enjoying your day or if you like the person asking. But if the moment you are asked you care about looking powerful and in control at all, watch out that you don't over-comply and put too much effort.

Here are two ways then to do them a favore while still keeping a balanced exchange: do it on your terms, or can ask for compliance back.

  • Do it on your terms

Saying yes but doing it on your terms then means in the picture example that you take the camera, but without inconveniencing yourself.

If you're sitting, you stay seated -or just stand up without moving-. If you were reclining against a wall, you just take a step forward but no more.

And if you're talking to someone, you take the camera, take a quick shot and quickly give it back.
Don't say "sure", "it was a pleasure", "do you need one more".  The message you're sending here is that you want to be nice enough, but your conversation and your friend are more important and is not to be kept waiting.

Notice the girl in this Youtube prank example. She's sitting, the guy moves rather far away for the picture, but she still stays seated anyway. She's sub-communicating "sure dude, I can help... Without being too inconvenienced though, this is where I draw the line".

  • Demand Compliance Back

An easy way of not looking like you're following their lead and putting in more effort is to demand from them equal compliance and have them follow your lead as well.

It's easier than it sounds: you simply command them on how to fit and pose the picture.
You're the one with the camera, don't let them tell you how to take the picture, YOU tell them how to move.
If they keep insisting having it their own way say you're the photographer. If they still keep insisting tell them to find another photographer.
But you will find the vast majority of people will just follow your suggestions.

Here's an example:

Not long ago a group of guys asked me to take the picture.
It was night time. Big group of guys, being noisy, taking time as they formed the group.
The social risk for me was that I looked overpowered and like a tool at their disposal.

The guy who gave me the camera told me "go back" so that they could all fit in.
Nice try buddy. I took it saying "no from here it's good". Then when I pointed the camera I told them to move farther back and form two lines.

Power balance restored.

Low Effort and Rude: Refuse

If someone is rude, even if the task is easy, refuse.

Demanding proper and well mannered behavior should be a staple of who you are.
If they comes to you and hand you a phone without a please or without a smile don't take the phone.

If they ask why not say it's because they were rude.

And If they look at you with a "why not expression" don't say anything: you never reply verbally to a nonverbal gesture.
Either take a step away as if it's a smelly bum or stay there and shake your head.

It will happen rarely though that someone will come to you and be rude. What can happen a bit more often though is in the example below:

High Effort and Rude: Ignore

Here's the simple rule: if someone needs something from you they should put more effort first, not the other way around.

You will mostly see this happening in these situations:

  • Waving you over

This is the worst possible!

Maybe someone is sitting and you're walking by.
Or it's a group of people and they call out to you -groups always feel more powerful than single persons-.
You ignores these requests.

I remember once I was walking in a club and a guy sitting with a girl at bar was waving at me. I stopped and turned my head towards them. He took the camera out and motioned me to go there.

In these cases, you nod at them as if they just said hi and resume walking. The idea is that you ignore compliance while helping them save a bit of face so you also avoid making enemies.

  • Asking for too many pics

It can happen sometimes the high effort is not apparent right off the bat (sometimes it's used in deceiving tricks by exploiting the consistency and commitment principle, Cialdini).

In the "take my picture case", you might be asked to take more pictures than you were expecting to.

In these cases, as soon as they ask for more, you say "last one and then I need to go". Or "hey girls I'm too lazy, this is the last one". Then hand the camera back -and let them walk to you to take it-.

"can you take my picture diagram": when to say yes and when to say no

The End of the story

How did I handle the girl coming over and asking me for a picture?

Well, my first mistake was that I should have moved Julia away earlier. Moving her was good both in terms of her following my lead, in starting to do something together, and in removing us from the noisy group and jealous girl.

But of course, once Madelaine asked us for a picture it was too late for that.

It was important to me that Julia didn't think I was prioritizing doing a favor to this unknown girl over talking to her, which would have sent a bad message about my leadership and about my level of interest about her.

Also, I didn't want to look like I was complying too much to this group of unknown people. Accepting was going to be a risk in that sense.

But I was also wary of denying Madelaine a picture in front of Julia. Julia probably hadn't picked up on Madelaine's not so nice intentions and in that case I would have looked bad and rude -and nobody likes rude people-.

See, when you already intimate with a girl, or when you're with someone you know well, you have much more leeway to act as you please.
There's indeed already trust between you two and you can always explain later.
But so early in a conversation, your bond is tenuous and a miscommunication can be fatal to your interaction.

What did I do then?
I lightly put my hand behind Julia's back and said

Me: yeah, she will take it

This way I took the lead and avoided both the risk of over-complying to Madelaine and the risk of having Julia think I was too spineless to let external events get in between us two.

Then I stood beside Julia to make sure she wasn't going to be drawn for too long and too deeply in the group dynamics and to send a message the two of us were together.
And as soon as the picture was done I restarted talking to her, minimizing the exposure to the group and to Madelaine's meddling.

How to Turn Down Picture Requests

And here are a few techniques to say no in case you feel too much pressure:

#1. Use an Excuse

Ideally, you won't need to make up stories and lies, but if it's really too difficult for you to say a direct no, then make up a story.

In the example of taking a picture:

  1. My hand shakes
  2. I'm waiting for an important call
  3. I'm too busy right now

#2. Use Nonverbals

Put your hand up and lightly shake your head. You don't even need to say a word like this.

#3. Say "I could... But I think You Should Do It"

If the request is about something that they can easily do, just say

I could do it but why should I do your job. That's your task

Then let them explain why you should do it. If their explanation convince you, then you can do it.
And it's a win anyway for you because by explaining they invested energies in the interaction.

#4. Pretend You Didn't Hear

If it's someone bothering you and you're walking, or if you are working on your laptop very busy, don't turn around.

Before asking you to do something they should at least make sure you are ready to listen. If they don't, they don't deserve your full attention.

Summary

From a power dynamics point of view, asking for a picture entails a power dynamic.

Some people, depending on the situation, might also use it for social climbing purposes.

If you take their picture the wrong way, you will lose social power.
But if you handle it well, you might even gain some points.

Cheers,

Lucio

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

Someone told me to take a selfie with the girl's phone after taking a photo for a bunch of girls in a nightclub.
Maybe even make a silly face when taking the selfie.
And he says he always does that whenever girls ask him to take photos for them.

I have not tried it out sufficiently to test whether it works to rebalance the power dynamics.
But it sounds fun in a nightclub!