How Not to Be an A-hole When…

… Someone Asks You To Review Something You Haven’t Experienced

I have a next door neighbor who is a teacher and apparently recently launched a tutoring business. She emailed me this week asking me to post a recommendation for her tutoring business on a community website even though my child has never been tutored by her. Not only don’t I have any actual experience with her business, when I looked online it appeared to be based on fake pseudo-science, like the school where she teaches. If a friend were to ask me about her as a tutor my honest answer would be “keep away!” How to I politely decline to make a recommendation? We aren’t close but I don’t want to start a conflict. I also just don’t feel comfortable recommending a business I think is potentially harmful to kids.

I understand your neighbor’s desire to get her business off the ground with some good reviews, but her request of you is unethical. She’s essentially asking you to lie in a public forum about a service you’ve never used. That’s an asshole move.*

I know that people can use reviews in nontraditional ways (think of the 1-star Yelp reviews on businesses that mistreat people of color or refuse to serve member of the LGBTQ community, mostly coming from people who may not even live in the same state as the business), but those are usually pretty clear in their writing. In this case, your neighbor is promoting dishonesty in order to convince other people to give her money.

Now, I’m sure she doesn’t view it like that, and I’m also sure that someone who is a friend of hers and who believes in her tutoring method could come up with a way to technically tell the truth in a review without revealing that she hadn’t been a client, but that’s still just a fancy way of misleading others.

Since your child has never been tutored by your neighbor, I think you can avoid telling her about your concerns about the teaching method, at least initially. Instead, I think the best approach is “Unfortunately I have a policy of not writing reviews for businesses I’ve never patronized.** Thank you, though, for asking and for understanding.”

For this to work well, of course, this should be your policy. Hopefully it is; if it isn’t, consider making it your policy.

Your neighbor might respond in a few different ways:

1. She might just say “Of course,” in which case, sweet. You’re done.

2. She might offer free tutoring to your child, which clearly you don’t want. In that case, you can skirt the issue of your fundamental disagreement with her methods by saying “I appreciate the offer, but we’re not looking to add another academic appointment to Atticus’s calendar.” Another option is to simply say “Atticus isn’t in need of a tutor in that area.”

If, however, your child does need some assistance with the subject your neighbor specializes in, this could be a bit awkward. My suggestion is to say “We’re not looking for a change to Atticus’s program in math right now.” You can follow up with qualifiers, like “He’s really turned a corner with his current tutor” or “we’ve just started with a new one and don’t want to change things in the middle.”

3. She might say “how about just a general recommendation about me, since you know me well and know how I am with kids.” This is, of course, the nightmare scenario, because you wouldn’t recommend her, and in fact are interested in keeping people you care about far away from her methods.

You can avoid a longer discussion here by saying “Oh that’s sweet, but I bet people would rather hear from one of your customers regardless of what I’d have to say.” The key here is to say it as though you’re doing her a favor by declining, suggesting that your opinion doesn’t carry much weight. Then immediately wrap it up so she can’t keep trying to convince you. “Alright, have to get the kiddo some dinner. Have a good night!”

Hopefully something I’ve shared above will work to end the conversation and prevent awkwardness, but at this point she might pick up on the fact that you just don’t want to recommend her business. She should just let it go, thank you for your time, and not bring it up again. But if she’s passionate about her business and feels judged or defensive, she might keep pushing.

Since she’s a teacher at a school that ascribes to this teaching philosophy and is now starting a business based on it, I think it is unlikely that, at least in this moment of discussion across your fences, she’s going to change her whole outlook on education. So I recommend this conversation stopper: “It seems like we have different philosophies about education, so I think it’s best that we leave it there.” If she wants to keep going, it’s appropriate to say “I appreciate that this is your field; I’m just not interested in a discussion about pedagogy. I’ll see you soon.”

And then go inside and be done with it.

Depending on how it ends, you might see a shift in your interactions. As her business grows (if it grows), she might make the occasional snarky comment as though the number of parents she can convince to pay her means her philosophy is a good one. Your best route is to smile and say something along the lines of “It sounds like things are working out well for you” and then change the subject.

*This is also an example of a situation that contradicts the concept that “there’s no harm in asking.”

**I’m not suggestion that you should never promote a good friend’s business to other friends if you’ve never been a client. You should just do it honestly, sparingly, and usually at the request of someone who is looking for recommendations. Example: “You’re looking for a wedding photographer? My friend Lucy does what seems to be great work. She was a guest at my wedding so didn’t take the pictures, and we’ve not had an occasion yet to hire her, but the photos she posts on her website are great and I know she really loves what she does. Here’s her website, let me know if you want me to put you two in touch.”

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