One of my friends asked me to help him and my response was:

How can I help you?

But he laughed and said you mean:

How can I be of service

What is the difference?

  • 6
    The only difference I can see is that the second is a little more formal.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 29, 2017 at 12:44
  • Agreed with Colin. I'm not sure why your friend implied that your first answer was wrong.
    – stangdon
    Mar 29, 2017 at 13:40
  • What did your friend say when he asked for help? What was he asking for help with? It's possible that the laughter/correction was contextual.
    – SteveES
    Mar 29, 2017 at 14:13
  • 2
    "How can I be of service?" is a line that I, as an American English speaker, would expect to hear from a butler, a bespoke tailor, or a luxury hotel clerk. It's pretty formal, and not often heard.
    – Dr. Funk
    Mar 29, 2017 at 14:29
  • @SteveES he wanted me to lookup something for him since he was outside
    – Ashkan S
    Mar 31, 2017 at 13:49

3 Answers 3


One possible explanation about his joke could relate to sales technique and the use of biased questions. If you were a sales person in a shop, you would be expected to walk up to customers and offer to help. If you say:

Can I help you?

This is not a biased question: the customer can answer yes or no. If, instead, you ask

How can I help you?

this is a biased question: you are assuming that you can help, and it's difficult for the customer to refuse. This question is simply a polite biased question: you could go to the next level by asking a very obsequious biased question:

How can I be of service?

When your friend asked you to help, your response was perfectly appropriate because you definitely know that your friend wants your help. It is, however, a stock phrase which sounds like a sales pitch, and your friend may have been alluding to the "sales pitch" angle by suggesting that you should go to the next level.

If somebody asked me to help them, I would reply slightly less formally and I would avoid potentially confusing stock phrases, by saying:

Sure. What would you like me to do?

  • Yes, sure. Have instead of like Mar 29, 2017 at 14:25
  • Another alternative would be "Sure, what do you need?"
    – Hellion
    Mar 29, 2017 at 16:36
  • Emm.. Java are you sure there should be a "to" after me? What about "What would you like me do?" Mar 31, 2017 at 11:46
  • 1
    @SovereignSun: have in this sense requires a bare infinitive- no to. like requires a to-infinitive. The to is definitely required. dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/like
    – JavaLatte
    Mar 31, 2017 at 14:03
  1. be of service (to sb) - to help someone.
  2. to help - to make it possible or easier for someone to do something, by doing part of the work yourself or by providing advice, money, support, etc.

I can't see why he laughed.

There are many possible ways to provide help.

  • How can I help you?
  • How can I be of help to you?
  • How can I be of service to you?
  • How can I assist you?

As others have pointed out, there isn't really any difference in meaning between the two phrases; the only real difference is that "being of service" is slightly more formal.

Therefore I cannot tell you definitively why your friend found it funny (I don't see the joke) and "corrected" you. I can only offer the following suggestions:

  1. Ask your friend what the joke was.
  2. "Service" can be used to describe the job of a servant. It is possible that they were inferring that, in agreeing to look something up for them, you were acting as their servant rather than just being a helpful person.
  3. Responding to his request for help by saying "How can I help you?" is reasonably formal, and is stereotypically something that (e.g.) a shop assistant might say. In an informal context, someone might be more likely to just say "yeah" or "sure", and/or ask something like "what do you want?". Therefore, he may have been mocking your formality by saying you should have been even more formal than you were.
  4. An outside possibility is that this is a quote from a film, TV program, book, etc. and your friend found it funny due to this reference. If it is a quote, it isn't one that I recognise.

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