A few months ago, my family and I moved to a new home. Among several decorating and renovating projects, we hired a team of four men to install carpets in the bedrooms. It was a long and hard day, and as I headed out to grab some lunch, I asked the project lead whether I could bring some food back for him and his crew.

"It's ok," he replied.

"Really," I insisted. "I'm going to get myself some lunch and I'd be happy to bring you all something."

"Ok then," he said. "Thank you."

"Excellent," I said. "What would you like?"

"Whatever you bring." He replied.

"No, seriously," I insisted. "I can bring you anything. What do you prefer?"

"Whatever you bring," he said again.

"You tell me what you want, and I will get it for you," I tried again, wanting to be thoughtful, helpful, and generous.

At this point, he took a beat and a breath. And then he looked at me and said, "Ma'am, it would be disrespectful for me to ask you to bring us anything specific. We are working for you."

That took me back. Clearly, he was aware of the power and cultural differences that I wasn't thinking about. But it was clearly important to him that he accept help in a way that didn't feel like he was overstepping his place.

And, as I learned several years ago as a part of diversity, equity, and inclusion training, the person in the dominant position tends to think they're being judged on their intentions, while the person in the less powerful position judges on impact. The impact I was having was that he felt like I was pressing him to be insubordinate. When we offer help to our colleagues, direct reports, managers, or clients, our intentions don't matter as much as our impact.

Furthermore, as my co-author (and daughter) Sophie Riegel and I write in our book Go To Help: 31 Strategies to Offer, Ask for, and Accept Help, asking for and receiving help can mean so many different things to different people. It could mean: "I am a part of a team, and helping is what team members do for one another." And it could also mean: "I am a part of a team, and asking for help might bring shame or embarrassment to my team." Or it could mean: "Accepting help is how you get better at your job." And it could also mean: "Accepting help is how people decide that don't know how to do your job."

How, when, where, and by whom you were raised impacts your help-seeking mindsets and behaviors -- as these factors do for everyone around you. The person you want to help may have fundamentally different beliefs, norms and values about help than you have. These have a direct impact on whether someone believes that they are in need of help, whether or not they seek help, from whom, what kind, and how forthcoming they are about help in general.

For example, collectivistic cultures, such as those in China, Korea, Japan, Costa Rica, and Indonesia, emphasize interdependence and social harmony within the group. As a result, people who were raised in these cultures may put what's good for the group or team above personal interests and motives. In comparison, cultures that are more individualistic, such as the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom, tend to put personal motives over group values. So you might notice that your colleague in Beijing is less likely to seek (or even accept) help outside their own team, while your colleague in Brisbane is more apt to say, "thanks for the offer -- I'll take some help."

Of course, that's not always the case. And there are myriad factors that impact one's culture, beliefs, practices, and values when it comes to accepting help. For example, if your direct report's parents embarrassed them when they asked for help at age 8, it's possible that asking for and accepting help may be hard for them at age 58. If your colleague has always kept their problems to themselves and values privacy, then don't take it personally when they don't want to confide in you about what kind of help they need -- even if you really, truly intend to help.

And rather than try to figure out the cultural nuances of every person you work with or play with, ask yourself this question: What don't I understand about this person that may contribute to their thoughts, feelings, and actions around accepting help?

Better yet, rather than perspective-taking (imagining what it's like in their shoes), do some perspective-getting (asking them to share their experience):

  • What have I said or done in the past that felt most helpful to you?
  • What have I said or done in the past that felt unhelpful to you?
  • How could I be more helpful to you in the future?

As for the workers in my house, based on the feedback I had received about how my attempt to be helpful was being interpreted, I changed my approach:

"I will bring back sandwiches, chips, and soda for you and the crew," I said. "Will that work?"

He smiled, "Yes. Thank you."

"No," I said to him. "Thank you."

If you're trying to offer help to someone who isn't taking it, take a step back and see how you may need to adapt your approach. You can also get curious about what you might be a misunderstanding about how they're interpreting your offer. That's one of the most helpful things we all can do.