What is the idiom, expression or proverb for

If you bend once, they will bend you for life.

In Indian culture in marathi language, we have a saying

"Jithe oli/mau mathi, tithe atti" which literally means "wherever wet/soft ground, there is exploitation." The meaning is wherever people find niceness, kindness, or generosity, people will take advantage of their niceness. That is, if one yields or allows himself to be used then the other party squeezed them to the last drop.

This is usually used in business, like client vs. subcontractor relationship or client vs. service provider relationship or client vs. customer relationship, or in an employer/employee context.

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    Just an FYI to "bend someone (over)" in US English means to "fuck them over" as in you're bending them over the furniture to fuck them. I would advise strongly against approximating the Indian (sorry, I don't know Indian languages by sight) expression with the word "bend" in English in anything but the most casual settings. – Azor Ahai Sep 14 at 21:59
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    I've also made a few edits to clean up your post. Good question, thanks for including the original. Can you note what language that is? – Azor Ahai Sep 14 at 22:04
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    @AzorAhai There is the English expression "bend over backwards for someone" which is close and not sexual. At least I don't think it is sexual since you are bending backwards (unless it's a reference from kama sutra). – Kodos Johnson Sep 14 at 23:47
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    In Persian we have a proverb that says, “If you give a chance to a dead man, he will wake up and dance.” – Hadi Sep 15 at 13:21
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    In German, it is "you offer your pinkie, and they take the hand"... – Aganju Sep 15 at 13:39
up vote 128 down vote accepted

Two phrases that are close are:

  1. Give them an inch and they will take a mile.

    e.g. John would not give an inch in the negotiations with the opposition.

  2. to open the floodgates

    e.g. The company agreeing to the workers' demands for better pay would open the floodgates to demands by workers in other departments.

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    American here: #1 is definitely the phrase I most commonly would use or hear. – UnhandledExcepSean Sep 14 at 14:17
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    British English here - for #1 the most common version I've heard spoken is "give them and inch and they'll take a yard", but that may be regional (SE England). – Spratty Sep 14 at 14:40
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    Your example for #1 doesn’t actually use it? And merely “give an inch” is not necessarily an allusion to someone taking a mile: in your expectation, I would presume that John objected to even the inch, rather than being concerned about them then taking the mile. – KRyan Sep 14 at 14:59
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    @Spratty: perhaps you lot are just nicer. Most Americans would definitely take the whole mile if they had the chance. Not me though. I’d just take a kilometer. – WGroleau Sep 14 at 16:38
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    @Chieron The taking of 'a mile' does not necessarily refer to a single event. The giving of an inch might be just lending a teabag when the office caddy is empty. A couple of days later, they come back to ask for another; you didn't mind last time, after all. Pretty soon, you're supplying the whole building with tea - they've taken a mile. – Richard Ward Sep 15 at 19:07

There is a popular children's book called If You Give a Mouse a Cookie that describes how giving in to a greedy party's demands will just result in a cascade of demands -

If you give a mouse a cookie, he will ask for a glass of milk.

There is a whole series of books based on this premise (e.g. If You Give a Pig a Pancake), but the first is familiar enough (it was a New York Times Best Seller) that simply saying if you give a mouse a cookie will often elicit an understanding of the unspoken follow-up, meaning that if you cave to unreasonable wishes, your kindness will be met with exploitation.

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    I suspect that is a reference that's only intelligible to people with kids. If someone told me "If you give a mouse a cookie," I 'd think that meant you were about to have a problem with an infestation. – piojo Sep 17 at 15:51
  • @piojo I think that helps show it's actually a pretty good idiom then. If you give a mouse a cookie, you are inviting the infestation down the road. It's pretty much the same premise as "asking for a glass of milk"; but more realistic. – JMac Sep 17 at 15:58
  • @Jmac No. The meaning that parents who have read the book will infer is "... you will get a sequence of ever-increasing demands", the meaning that others will infer is "... you will get an infestation?" Not a good idiom. – Martin Bonner Sep 18 at 7:28

The camel's nose is a metaphor that is sometimes used for this. It is supposedly of Arab origin, but was adopted into English around the mid-19th century, and may in fact be British in origin.

An early example is a fable printed in 1858 in which an Arab miller allows a camel to stick its nose into his bedroom, then other parts of its body, until the camel is entirely inside and refuses to leave. Lydia Sigourney wrote another version, a widely reprinted poem for children, in which the camel enters a shop because the workman does not forbid it at any stage.

This is sometimes pithily stated as "If the camel once gets his nose in the tent, his body will soon follow," or "Beware of the camel's nose."

It's worth noting that this turn of phrase is not as common as some of the less "colorful" options provided in this thread, so it may require some explanation if used.

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    I've also never heard of this, so I'm not sure how widespread this is or whether it would be understood when used (especially the "Beware the camel's nose" option). – Anthony Grist Sep 14 at 14:03
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    I've never heard this on the west coast of the US. – Roger Sinasohn Sep 14 at 16:43
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    I've never heard of this in Canada. – Ertai87 Sep 14 at 19:02
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    Despite the above comments, it is a common expression and I would expect most children to know it and be taught it as a fable. It is well enough known to be very flexible and can be extensively customized for the situation at hand. It was also the first thing that came to mind after reading the question. – Phil Sweet Sep 14 at 23:51
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    @Ghotir I'm among the people who would say "I've never heard that phrase before this answer", but reflecting on it more it's also possible that people have said the phrase and I just don't remember because I didn't recognize it, whereas you recognize it when you hear it. There definitely hasn't been a situation where somebody used it in conversation with me though. – Kamil Drakari Sep 17 at 13:53

A literary reference would be “Dane-geld” by Rudyard Kipling:

...if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
    You never get rid of the Dane.

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    Related, but with a different significance. The historical reference is to the tribute paid by early Medieval Anglo-Saxon kings to Vikings. In context, he’s talking about giving in to intimidation and showing that you’re weak and easy to push around. The poem is usually quoted today to argue against a policy of appeasement, not against generosity. – Davislor Sep 14 at 21:37
  • @Davislor To quote the question directly, "...if one yields or allows himself to be used then the other party squeezed them to the last drop." – talrnu Sep 15 at 7:29
  • @talrnu It’s apposite in that sense, but the question also specifies that it’s referring to kindness or generosity, not intimidation. I don’t think it’s irrelevant, but the quote is strongly and specifically associated with advocacy of a hawkish foreign policy. – Davislor Sep 15 at 9:47

While it's not an idiom or proverb, the word precedent encompasses the essence of what you're saying.

any act, decision, or case that serves as a guide or justification for subsequent situations.

The idiom you're describing sounds to me like "bending this once wouldn't be all that bad, but then they will expect us to bend in the future which would be bad." In this case it would specifically be a "bad precedent", and the full phrase that would be used is "Set a bad precedent". For example:

Your mom might not let you stay up late because it would set a bad precedent for future bedtimes. [Source]

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    This is really absolutely correct. "You're setting a dangerous precedent" is probably in fact the closest common phrase in English. – Fattie Sep 16 at 9:18

One other possible saying: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

The connotation here is that you have already been taken advantage of, so now you are less trusting of the other party you use it in regards to. If you are taken advantage of again it's truly your own fault, and you're trying to imply that you won't let that happen.

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    The way the title is worded reminds me of how president Bush screwed up this phrase. – Mazura Sep 14 at 17:44
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    i don't think this "Fool me once..." idiom is related to the one sought in the OP. – robert bristow-johnson Sep 15 at 1:30
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    I was going to disagree at first, but this actually works. The asker wants an idiom that implies weakness or charity will always be taken advantage of, with the subtler further implication that you should therefore be strong and limit your charity. The idiom in this answer doesn't imply the former directly, but it does imply the latter: that you're only taken advantage of if you allow it (i.e. you're too weak or charitable to resist), so don't. – talrnu Sep 15 at 7:20
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    agree that this is not a fit for the question – Orangesandlemons Sep 17 at 10:22

I once saw a paper about incrementalism in politics illustrated with a Rube Goldberg cartoon of a someone slipping his foot into a door, kicking a camel that then stuck its nose under a tent, which pushed a ball to start rolling down a slippery slope, into a river that carried it with the current over the falls and wore away a rock.

All of those metaphors but one are about how one thing leads to another. Going over the waterfall is a point of no return, as is Julius Caesar’s “The die is cast.” A more humorous one for how the consequences of our actions are now unavoidable and soon to catch up with us is, “a little pregnant.”

Another related metaphor is that, according to urban legend, if you drop a frog into hot water, it will jump out, but if you heat the water slowly, it won’t notice before it boils to death. James Fallows at The Atlantic has made it a pet cause of his to debunk this myth. In reality, frogs do hop out of dangerously hot water—unless their brains have been removed.

In the specific context where you’ve done or received an illicit favor, and are now being blackmailed for it, we might say that someone “owns you,” or (more crudely) “has you by the balls.” If someone you thought was your friend betrays you outright, that’s “stabbing you in the back” or “selling you out.” If it’s a relationship where they make you think they’ll return your favors, but they never do, that’s “stringing you along.” If they’re just taking advantage while outwardly maintaining their friendship, they’re “walking all over you.” perhaps “like a carpet,” and someone who gets walked all over is a “doormat.”

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    the "boiling frog" metaphor is an outstanding suggestion – Fattie Sep 16 at 9:18

There is an adage I've heard which would apply: "Help someone in trouble, and he will come to you when he is in trouble again." But it currently doesn't really turn up in a Google search (it appears in a search result, but not the page linked to) so I can't say it's very well known. I don't remember where I heard it.

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