“Bill Me for Everything” Change

by Doreen Simmons

When one party to an old relationship of trust suddenly wants to put it entirely on a businesslike footing, what’s really afoot? Well-balanced Aunt Eva, who likes a bit of friendly give-and-take herself, advises treading warily on this one.

Dear Aunt Eva,

I have a niggling little problem and would welcome a second opinion.

I have a very enjoyable 12-year relationship with a client for whom I used to do regular editing and proofreading. Over the past year or so, his business has contracted somewhat, and the work I get from him is now more irregular (it was never a huge money-maker but always fun work). However, he sometimes asks my advice by phone or fax about the English in advertising posters, the form of English references in Japanese text, etc. It’s not all one-way; he is a native speaker of a language other than English or Japanese, a desktop publishing expert, and generally a knowledgeable person, so I sometimes phone him to ask about phrases in his native language, what he would do in a certain publishing situation, etc.

Recently, however, he has started pressuring me to charge him for every little phone enquiry he makes, or a 1-page fax with fewer than 10 words on it. I don’t want to do that, since I think that there is a clear demarcation between our “mutual aid” and actual paying jobs with a deadline and I’m pretty sure I know where that line is. I don’t feel that I’m being taken advantage of and I hope that he doesn’t either. The phone calls do not only focus on the ongoing work, but also include updates on our families, other work problems, and news of mutual friends; we also occasionally meet for drinks or a meal (at which we split the bill). I’ve tried to tell him not to worry about asking my advice but my words don’t seem to sink in. How would you handle this? Where do you set your boundaries between long-time friends helping each other out and a client-freelancer relationship?

Honor Rhone

Aunt Eva answers:

Dear Honor,

Many would say that you had a high-class problem—a client wants you to invoice him for every little thing! Aunt Eva, too, is an independent old tabby who pays her own way and respects the saw “Fair exchange is no robbery”;  she is not, however, a mind-reader, and several explanations suggest themselves.

Perhaps the most obvious is that your friendly client, who as you say has lost some business recently, is having to tighten up his own accounting so as to wring out the last drop of hitsuyō keihi (necessary expenses) to be deducted from his miscellaneous income. Anyone with miscellaneous income (as opposed to salary, from which no deductions of this kind are possible) will be aware that even small sums can mount up quite handily, and the Income Tax people are remarkably understanding, provided that you have kept the paperwork tidy and the receipts neatly bundled. If this is the answer, and your friend is only interested in collecting deductions, he may not be overly concerned to bill you for similar enquiries, which would bring in negligible income but compound the problem of paperwork. You can test the temperature of the water here by saying innocently, “Oh, does this mean that you are going to bill me every time I ask you a question?”

Another reason, more far-fetched but still possible, is that he may have acquired a new office manager or wife (often one and the same). If it is a woman (and a manager and wife are often the same person, especially in Japan), she may be suspicious of the most innocent and businesslike connections with other women, and be anxious to put them on an unmistakably business footing, just in case. The reasoning may be “If it’s really a business acquaintance, the woman will welcome the new ground rules; if it isn’t, they should freeze her out or frighten her off.” 

Alternatively, he may simply be an old-fashioned gentleman who hates to feel he’s taking advantage of a lady. But if that were the case, he would hardly let you split the bill when you have a meal or drinks together.

Or he may be a mixture of all of the above and feel that things have drifted too far; now he wants to get back on a regular (= acceptable to him) footing.

Whatever the reason for this change of heart (or at least change of approach), how are you to deal with it? Like you, Honor, Aunt Eva draws a clear line of demarcation between commissioned work and reasonable give-and-take in small ways. Perhaps unlike you, however, she has a mental balance sheet that ticks off, without any conscious volition on her part, the quid pro quo. Asked many years ago to define “a friend,” she blurted out, “A friend is a person you do things for without keeping count.”  This definition has never changed; but in the course of time Aunt Eva has observed that once in a while the balance suddenly clangs down on the “debit” side. This happens with lightning speed when she finds that she has been pumped for information that was immediately sold for a respectable fee;  but in general it is enough, in a relationship of trust and friendship, that a decent balance is observed, and that fair warning be given if it is exceeded. Examples: “I’m afraid I’d have to spend quite a bit of time ferreting out the information you want; shall I time it and invoice you?” or “I thought I was only asking you a quick question but it’s turning into quite a long job—please bill me” or “Funny you should ask that; I have a piece of work of about the same length; shall we trade?” Note that this approach only works when the other person is entirely on the level. If your offer of reciprocity results in an indignant “I thought you were my friend . . . !”  then it is very likely you were being used.

But let us return to our muttons. Your own client/friend, Honor, is the opposite; he is the one who wants, apparently, to pay you.  Possible ways of dealing with it: 1) Say jokingly, “Then you would have to bill me for all the times I consult you” (give recent examples).  2) Say jokingly, “In that case, next time we go out, you’ll have to pay for the beers.”  3) Say something else jokingly. Get the drift? Aunt Eva’s instinct here is to try to keep it at the level of light banter.  But keep it light—it may be that your client really does have a bigger problem.

Aunt Eva recalls one that got away, and always wonders if she should have seen it coming.  She was roped in by a woman professor to help translate a Japanese opera. Aunt Eva labored long hours on shaping her friend’s very literal translation of the libretto into a text that the professional American librettist could use as a basis. Aunt Eva cheerfully agreed to await payment until the opera was actually staged; for one thing, it had been a fun job, and for another, she had faith in the entertainment value of the opera.

A year or two later, out of the blue a respectable chunk of money appeared in Ant Eva’s bank balance and she received a reproachful letter from the composer, saying that at the insistence of their mutual friend he had paid up, although it was out of his own pocket because the English version of the opera was as yet unperformed. At the same time, Aunt Eva was rather annoyed that her friend had jumped the gun in this way, and said so to the composer. Neither of us realised that our mutual friend had her own agenda. Ever the efficient one, she had, it transpired, made a list of ‘loose ends’ and with the tenacity of the partly demented she was working her way through. Two or three weeks later, having cleared the backlog and drawn a line underneath the list, she quietly killed herself.

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 98 (September 2002)