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The modified Tom Sawyer stratagem

Sept. 29, 2008

by Ivan Raconteur

An old friend of mine employed the modified Tom Sawyer stratagem, and, as a result, I spent several thoughtful hours at the top of a ladder last weekend.

As my readers no doubt recall, the original Tom Sawyer stratagem involved a “magnificent inspiration” that came to Tom when old Aunt Polly sent him out to whitewash the fence.

He was not keen to take on this task, but his resources were not sufficient to bribe any of his friends to do the work for him.

While he contemplated his plight, he hit upon one of the basic truths of human behavior.

By making the other lads think that he enjoyed whitewashing the fence and didn’t trust them to have a go at it, he turned the tables and got them to pay him for the privilege of doing his work.

The boys actually took pleasure in the job. The difference, as Twain quaintly put it, is that “work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play is whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

This brings us to the modified version of the Tom Sawyer stratagem.

It involves making a request seem less burdensome by asking for only a small portion of what one wants, and then adding manageable pieces one at a time.

For example, if you were loafing around over in Egypt and got the idea to build yourself a monument, you wouldn’t call the boys together and say you wanted them to help you build a pyramid. You would casually ask them to help you gather a few stones together. If you gave them the whole picture at once, they might get on their camels and bolt.

In this case, my friend began by asking if I was going to be free at the weekend. Then she asked if I would help her move the Widow Maker (a 40-foot extension ladder).

She wanted to do some repair to the mortar between the bricks on the house, she said, but needed help with the ladder.

Naturally I agreed to this. It is no great hardship to move a ladder.

Saturday arrived, and I presented myself ready for duty. We took the ladder out of the garage and got it set up in place.

Then, my friend went to phase two. Casting a thoughtful look at the house she said it looked like she wouldn’t be able to reach all of the spots that she wanted to work on from the big ladder.

She asked if I would mind driving the truck to her friend’s house to borrow a shorter ladder so she could finish the job.

I agreed to this, and made the 45-minute round trip, bringing back two ladders of different lengths.

When I returned, she unleashed her masterstroke.

“Would you be interested in doing those spots near the top?” she asked coyly.

She explained that while I was gone, she had studied the situation and decided that she was not comfortable working that high off the ground.

To say I was “interested” in doing it might be a bit optimistic, I replied, but conceded that I was “willing” to do it.

The way the request was framed practically implored me to be a bit chivalrous.

I took up a bucket and trowel, and up the ladder I went.

This was a brilliant move on her part, because it is based on the sound reasoning that once a guy is at the top of a ladder, he is likely to stay there until he finishes whatever job he is working on.

She was careful to keep me supplied with mortar, so as not to give me time to lose interest in my work.

I couldn’t help chuckling to myself a time or two as I toiled away on my lofty perch.

I had to admit that her strategy had been well played. It certainly showed progress, and I was proud of her.

There was a time when she was, let us say, less diplomatic.

Some people have a way of either telling others what to do, or asking in a way that feels like getting slapped in the kisser with a dead codfish.

This time though, she handled it perfectly.

She began by asking if I was available, rather than assuming I was.

Then, she asked, very nicely, if I would do each successive step.

This goes back to the original Tom Sawyer theme. If a person is told to do something, it is work. If he chooses to do it (or thinks he has a choice), it may not seem like work, or at least he can feel good about doing it because it is voluntary. This may seem a small point, but it makes all the difference.

The modified Tom Sawyer stratagem is by no means new. Salesmen have been using it for years. They never ask for the whole enchilada at once, because if that is rejected, they are sunk. Instead, they start with something basic. Then, once the mark has agreed to purchase whatever it is, the salesman rolls up his sleeves and goes to work selling the add-ons.

He knows it is psychologically easier for someone to agree to additional purchases once he has made the initial investment. The same is true with work.

A similar gambit that is generally used only by guys is the 10-minute job.

I once had a friend who was a master of this strategy.

Whenever we went out, he would say, “I’ve got to do “X” before we go, but don’t worry,” it’s only a 10-minute job.”

These little projects usually involved things like hefting giant pieces of furniture up several flights of stairs or rebuilding an engine.

We both knew they were going to take much longer than 10 minutes, but it was all part of the game. He would say that his wife had insisted that he do the thing as a condition of his release, so, of course, we always did it.

As far as the mortar repair project last weekend is concerned, I may have spent several hours up a ladder instead of doing the job I had planned to do, but I didn’t mind.

One can get a lot of useful thinking done up a ladder. It is the sort of place where people tend to leave one alone, so it is peaceful, almost serene.

I would never suggest that my friend planned this in advance. No doubt she, like Tom Sawyer, just had a magnificent inspiration as the situation developed. She may have even been surprised that the stratagem worked as well as it did.

I am not surprised, though. You can’t beat a classic, and the modified Tom Sawyer stratagem is a classic.