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Can anyone please teach me what this phrase "work a system of favors" mean?

In the novel I'm reading now, a hero is blackmailing a heroine, who is an expert safecracker, to crack a safe which has important documents the hero is looking for. He doesn't tell her what kind of documents they are, and she is so scared to take a risk and asks if the documents are worth risking their lives.

And here's the thought that goes around in his mind in response to her question:

It was so much easier to ask a question like that from the outside of a mission, when you hadn't established the relationships, worked a system of favors, laid the groundwork.

I've looked for the meaning of "a system of favors" and guessed it would mean "a form of exchanging favors" (and please correct me if I'm mistaken), but the word "favors" sort of pops up in this paragraph, and nobody is talking about doing or exchanging favors even in this chapter, so I can't grasp its context and nuance.

Also, is "a system of favors" a thing you work? Can it be rephrased as "established a system of favors"?

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In this context, a system of favours is a feeling of obligation to grant a favour in the present due to favours received in the past.

Let me illustrate with a fictional story.

Let’s say Captain Barbell saves Ferrous Man. Now Ferrous Man owes Captain Barbell a favour. Then Ferrous Man retires from hero work to set up a family. But Captain Barbell needs him to invent a time machine to save the world, with a risk on the side that FM’s family might disappear if some butterfly flapped a bit differently in the past. FM is reluctant and could have just said, “No”, except he owes CB a big favour.

Ferrous Man could politely decline by asking the rhetorical question of whether it is worth risking his family in order to help. The expected answer, of course, is “No”. But having entered this “system of favours” due to CB’s earlier favour, he can’t just brush the request aside with a polite rhetorical question. That makes the question “harder to ask”.

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  • Thank you, Lawrence, it's a great example you've given me. You have helped me grasp its nuance! – Ellie Dec 4 '19 at 8:01
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"A system of favours" means a system where you pay each other in favours, not in money.

To "work" a system of favours means to "make it work for you". There's an appropriate definition on dictionary.com, but you need to click "see more definitions" to see the verb (used with object) and then click "see more" to get the right definition:

verb (used with object) [...]

28 to use or manage (an apparatus, contrivance, etc.): It is easy to work the camera in this mobile device. She can work many power tools.

32 to operate (a mine, farm, etc.) for productive purposes: to work a coal mine.

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  • Thank you, AndyT! I didn't know the usage of the word you've shown. A lot to learn...but it's clear now:) – Ellie Dec 4 '19 at 8:01

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