How to Understand and Love "Acts of Service" People
- Jaime Jo Wright Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2021 17 May
Sometimes you just want to help someone, and other times you’re specifically attempting to show the person how much you care. But then it backfires!
You’re told you’re doing it wrong, or they become irritable and short, annoyed that you’re helping. You feel like you need to back away slowly, duck and run for cover, or maybe just retort, “fine! I didn’t want to help you anyway!”
What causes this extreme negative reaction to the simple effort to try to assist someone? Why are some people more inclined to be irritated when receiving help, than others?
It’s important to understand the languages of love just a little bit, in order to understand the nuances of this personality riddle. Love languages, simply put, define how we communicate and how we interpret love.
There are five standard languages: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Tangible Gifts, Physical Touch, and Acts of Service. It is the Acts of Service people we’re discussing today, and woe to the soul who does not speak it correctly!
What Are Acts of Service
So what are Acts of Service anyway? Or at least, what makes these people tick and how do they process love and affection?
Individuals who receive love via Acts of Service will tend to give love in the same way. This means, to identify someone with Acts of Service as a primary love language, you’ll notice they’re consistently—well—serving others. And they enjoy it!
Dishes need washed? They jump at the opportunity. Need groceries while you’re home sick? They’re the first to volunteer. Have a project you need help with? If it falls in their wheelhouse of abilities, they’ll jump right in to assist and often, to lead.
These individuals truly take the phrase, “actions speak louder than words”, to the fullest extent. They may never express love in any way other than simply being busy beavers on behalf of those closest to them and even those they barely know.
So why is this paradox a thing? Someone receives loves through Acts of Service, but when you try to serve them to show them your love, you aggravate them to no end? Want the easy answer? It’s because people who don’t speak Acts of Services fluently, quickly overstep from serving to controlling. And there’s a huge difference!
Picture this: Acts of Service Johanna is decorating her picnic table for her daughter’s birthday. Susan joins and, seeing Johanna has so much to do, she offers to help. Johanna immediately declines. When Susan offers again, Johanna is hesitant to accept.
Within minutes, Susan is quick to communicate, “why do you go take a break, I’ve got this”, and within seconds, Johanna’s visage has changed to irritated, annoyed, stressed, and/or fidgety. What just happened? Susan freed Johanna by offering to serve.
The problem is this: those who speak Acts of Service are also individuals who typically have very specific processes and expectations for the task at hand. In other words, Johanna has a noticeably clear picture of how she wants the picnic table decorated. By telling Johanna to go take a break, Susan has effectively communicated, “I will do this my way and when you come back, you can see how far I’ve deviated from your expectations!”
At least, this is what Johanna hears—or something similar. It instantly inspires stress, panic, even horror in the hearts of the person who is already doing something they love—serving—and doing it very specifically. This is why Johanna refused help in the first place. Because she has a process in which she serves and if someone “helps” it only confuses the situation, hinders the efficiency, and/or creates more trouble.
So, what is a better way for someone like Susan to offer her service so that not only is she being helpful, she is also communicating to Johanna that she cares for/loves Johanna in a way that Johanna not only understands, but receives?
Let’s try the picnic scenario again. Susan enters and offers to help Johanna prep the table. Johanna refuses assistance. Susan rephrases: “I’d love to help you. Would you like to show me how you want the table decorated so I can be sure to do it the way you’re hoping?” Cue confetti and warm fuzzies!
Johanna would, at this point, be more likely to stop, stare, and then beam. “Sure!” She’d respond. Then Susan would listen carefully to instructions and proceed to follow them, doing it Johanna’s way. This gives Johanna more relaxation than being sent away to take a break. She gets the fulfillment of having someone serve beside her, and she’s not stressed by having someone trying to take over what she already is passionate about.
See, people who speak of Acts of Service aren’t suspicious, distrusting, control freaks. They’re also not busy beavers who prefer tasks over relationships. What they are is, extremely caring and concerned individuals who show love through serving, therefore, their service must be the best they can offer, no exceptions.
This level of quality of service leaves less room for error, and even less room for assistance which leads to possible error.
Acts of Service Ideas
So, what can a person do to show love to someone whose primary language is Acts of Service?
1. Include them in your service.
This means, literally, include them. For those of us who don’t speak Acts of Service, having something completed on our behalf and without us sounds heavenly. But not necessarily to someone who is an Acts of Service personality.
Being included means, not only do you want to assist them in love, but you value their methods, their input, their intellect, and their feelings. At some point, you can offer for them to go rest or remove themselves, but only after you’ve taken care to perform the service in a way that brings them peace.
It may be as simple as offering to dry the dishes and still allowing them the space to wash the dishes, versus ushering them from the kitchen and leaving them alone to ponder whether the dishes will be cleaned correctly, or feeling guilty that they aren’t helping.
2. Take direction.
This means, when you offer to help, also ask how they’d like it done. You may strike gold and find out they have no specific opinion and you are truly free to simply help as best suits you. But in many cases, they’ll have a bullet point list of how they want it completed. Listen to them. Then do it their way.
If you think there’s a better way, ask if you can make a suggestion, but don’t tell them there’s a better way so therefore you’d rather do it that way. By asking and offering suggestions, you’re valuing their opinion and expertise—even if their expertise is paltry—and coming to an agreed consensus on how the task will be completed goes a long way in making your person super happy.
3. Don’t argue.
Arguing about processes, the whys something needs done, questioning the priority of the task, etc. will only undermine your communication that you want to serve them. Instead, they are left feeling disrespected, unimportant, undervalued, and pushed aside.
A common response if they’re feeling this way is: “Fine. I’ll just do it myself”, or “Never mind, do whatever you want” usually followed quickly by their departure from the project. Instead, maybe just do it their way, offering suggestions as you go, or just do it their way. Really. It could be excruciatingly painful, but they will soak it up like a dry sponge in bathwater.
4. Don’t just do.
This is the painful one. Surprising someone by completing a project or trying to help them will typically backfire. Picture this. A boss goes on vacation and leaves behind their typical “organized mess”. While gone, in an effort to serve, her administrative assistant goes to the boss’s office and reorganizes their desk. Files are color-coded, surface is cleaned with things in neat piles, and even picture frames are repositioned to make more geometrically aesthetically pleasing displays.
Boss returns and all they see is utter chaos. They don’t know where anything is. Color coding be darned, it’s a nightmare! The act of service instead became an invasion of their proverbial Normandy, and now they have to fix it all.
Never just do. A better way would have been for the admin to say, “Hey, while you’re gone, I had the idea to color code your files this way and reorganize your desk this way. Would that be okay with you?” Sure, it ruins the element of surprise, but these aren’t typically the type of surprises that an Acts of Service person enjoys anyway.
If you really want to surprise them, bake a cake. Bring them coffee. Put streamers on their door for when they come back. Something that shows through service that you care, but not something that infringes on their personal space or task.
People who speak Acts of Service aren’t finicky or controlling. Instead, they should be interpreted as conscientious, caring, intentional, and perceptive. So flip that. That is how they also want to be treated.
Step back and remove what you want from the situation, or how you would handle it, and instead, look for ways to slip into their world, coming alongside of them, and incorporating their needs and ideas into the solution.
Acts of Service Ideas for Long-Distance Friends/Family
And don’t limit your showing of love to only physical acts of service either. People who are important to you, may live far away. You still want to speak their language. So how do you do this for friends and family separated by miles?
Calling them up, asking them how you can assist them by engaging in the exchange of ideas is one huge way. Again, it involves listening to their ideas and engaging in them as something that is valid and worthwhile.
You may also offer to complete something on the computer for them virtually, with their input. Even an act of service in the form of gift is a possibility. While these individuals may not respond to tangible gifts normally, if you’re providing them with tools so they can effectively serve, then the gift becomes, in itself an act of service.
Acts of Service is one of the easiest to complete, but also one of the hardest to understand. Because service doesn’t mean exclusion. Service, in most of these scenarios, means coming alongside and listening. If you can master that, then you will find your interactions with these individuals to be enriched, focused, and meaningful.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Tim Marshall
Jaime Jo Wright is the winner of the Christy, Carol, Daphne du Maurier, and INSPY Awards. She's also the Publishers Weekly and ECPA bestselling author of three novellas. Jaime works as a human resources director in Wisconsin, where she lives with her husband and two children.