When you were young you probably got used to asking permission to do things. Parents require this to be sure their child is safe within boundaries. But children tend to push back, testing limits, when they begin to individualize.
Part of gaining the right to expand boundaries comes from a parent’s approval; hearing the word “yes.” It’s a process based on concurrence. Getting the green light feels good.
The same principle applies when asking permission to join someone in an activity, a conversation, or a project. It feels good when someone says, “Sure! Join us.”
You probably remember from vocabulary classes the difference between “May I?” and “Can I?” “May I?” implies asking permission, whereas “Can I?” implies that capability is being considered.
When a person asks if he can join you, he is asking if something is possible. When he asks if he may join you, he is asking if something is permissible.
“May I join you?” is an influential question. It is immediately friendly, but at its foundation it reflects understanding and consideration.
When you enter someone’s personal space, you are crossing a sacred boundary. When you know someone well, you might assume you already have permission to enter her space. However, this is not a likely assumption when you don’t know someone. Which is why we use introductory words and phrases:
Each of these “introductions” is an indirect way of asking, “May I join you?” You are about to enter into conversation with someone, thus entering his space.
Asking the direct question when you wish to join someone clarifies your intention. You are seeking permission to be in the same space and interact with that person.
And you have provided a chance for the person to tell you she prefers that you not join her. You’ve given her an “out” in case one was needed. This helps her feel that she is fully in charge of her personal space.
So, why is “May I join you?” such a powerful question to ask?
Interacting with people can sometimes be tricky at best. But remembering what your parents taught you about seeking permission can smooth the edges of a desire to be included. Such an etiquette-ful request is difficult for a kind person to turn down.