Pick your nose.  Pick your poison.  Pick your teeth.  Pick your battles.  Have you ever noticed how almost every phrase in the English language that starts with the words “Pick your…” seems to have a negative connotation?

Following up on my most recent post, about networking etiquette, I thought I’d make one more quick suggestion — which is for people to consider eradicating the phrase “pick your brain” from their vocabulary.  This phrase has not only become a lazy cliche in recent years, but seems to also be transforming rapidly into a euphemism for “using people”, especially when the person asking to do the “picking” doesn’t show any signs of appreciation or reciprocity!  A number of service providers I know (e.g. marketing consultants, business coaches, attorneys, graphic designers, etc.) have complained to me recently about this issue, and as a career coaching professional, I’ll confess that I tend to encounter this behavior frequently, as well.

As one colleague of mine in the HR consulting field recently put it: “Don’t get me wrong, I love to help people, but I don’t do this for my health — and my free advice meter runs out pretty fast, each month!”  There’s also the take of the award-winning author and networking expert Jeffrey Gitomer, who writes in one of his books “People call me all the time and ask to buy my lunch so they can pick my brain.  My response is: ‘I have a $1000 an hour brain-picking fee, so I’ll buy your lunch!’  That stops all the bloodsuckers.”

Now to clarify, it’s perfectly appropriate to ask a service professional for a pro bono favor, as long as you’re up front about it.  Or to ask them to walk you through their background, their process, or the specific ways they feel they might be able to help you.  Obviously you have the right to conduct a round of due diligence before plopping down some funds or writing them a big check.  Where the line gets crossed, however, is when an individual invites somebody out to lunch or coffee with the expectation that they will receive free counseling and advice, in return.  This is a subtle form of exploitation — similar to asking a doctor to diagnose your rash at a cocktail party — and no, covering the price of a latte or lunch does not make you even-steven with the professional in question.  Frankly, I don’t know many service providers who charge a mere $3.50 an hour for their expertise.  Or at least ones whose advice you’d want to follow!