When It Is(n’t) Smart to Keep Someone Waiting
It doesn’t matter whether you are the interviewee or the interviewer; at some point, forced to wait long enough without any explanation or even a heads-up, you’re going to start feeling negative about being iced.
At 3:00 pm, you experience full-blown negativity about the person you are waiting for and whatever you previously imagined (s)he had to offer.
Put on ice, you don’t “chill out”; instead you and the deal start to turn dead cold in the wake of the meltdown. Worse, you may also come to doubt yourself, as you take the wait personally and wonder about what you are worth to the “waitist” (the one deliberately, neglectfully, thoughtlessly or unavoidably making you wait).
The Superstars’ Make ‘Em Wait “Rules” Approach
As you cool your heels, your patience boils. If you’re dealing with a deliberate waitist, perhaps (s)he has miscalculated the danger in making you wait so long. Maybe (s)he’s read too many Harlequin novels and marriage and dating guides like The Rules (a cold-as-bayonet-steel handbook, in two volumes, for snagging a husband (or maybe even a wife).
Praised to the heavens by super-star women, like Beyonce and Oprah, here), The Rules idealizes “keeping him waiting”, on the assumption that whether alluring or frustrating, making a guy (or, less commonly, a woman) “wait” will be effective and get you what you want.
For example, supermodel Cheryl Tiegs:
“For most of my life, I was not a Rules Girl. If a guy called, I called right back. There was no intrigue. Then, about 10 years ago (in 1995) I read the book and it became my bible.” (Do you know any recruiters who operate that way?)
On the other hand, maybe you’re dealing with an “accidental waitist”, i.e., the wait can’t be helped—just a matter of the circumstances (yet, perhaps with only thin, circumstantial evidence to support that precariously charitable interpretation while you’re waiting and dissipating any remaining heat of the moment).
Nonetheless, the incorporation of deliberate waitist strategies into a lot of Harlequinesque fiction and some “how-to” marriage/dating guides raises the question of how they can (be imagined to) succeed when put into personal, if not professional, practice (—a question to be answered below, in a close comparison of business waiting and “romantic” waiting).
When a “Making ‘Em Wait” Strategy Will (Not) Work— Some Waitist Scenarios
Why would anyone imagine that, as a general principle, in even one context, deliberately or neglectfully making others wait is a key to success?
Of course, in making offers on a condo or moves on a (wo)man, appearing over-eager can diminish your bargaining power or chances. But deliberately (or carelessly) making others wait for a response, a reaction or a scheduled meeting can backfire big-time. (That prospect invites the question as to why it would ever do anything else—a query addressed in what follows).
Hence, to succeed as a waitist requires, among other things, knowing when deliberately making someone wait will succeed (bigger and better than the alternatives) and when it will fail (possibly catastrophically).
For that purpose—to be able to gauge not only when being a deliberate waitist is permissible, but also profitable, the following scenarios need to be considered:
1. The broken appointment: Although all waiting for others involves a waitist’s taking more than the permissible, expected or appropriate time to do something, an appointment time that is not honored is, in the absence of extenuation, explanation or simple forewarning, distinctive in being a breach of an explicitly agreed-upon time.
This is different from merely having to wait longer than intuitively or informally expected or making others wait longer than that. That’s because the breach is quasi-contractual. The “waitee” (the person left hanging), forced to wait without explanation or warning as an appointed, scheduled time passes, is likely to be twice as resentful, suspicious and anxious as one who merely hoped to be waiting less (e.g., a farmer waiting for overdue rain).
The source of that doubled displeasure is that not only does the unexplained or unheralded waiting delay expected reward, closure, etc., as does all waiting (whether for others or Mother Nature); it also represents breaches of both etiquette and quasi-contract.
This means that seemingly deliberately or inexplicably keeping an applicant or a recruiter waiting for an interview makes the waitist as well as the situation, an extreme irritant—while putting the waitist’s character or (self-)organization on the front burners of suspicion, for a well-deserved fry.
Accordingly, if contemplating deliberately, and without any off-setting explanation or forewarning, making someone wait after a scheduled appointment time, for whatever reason, in order not to appear over-eager, to confirm or exercise one’s prestige or power, or to test his or her interest, great care must be taken not to trigger a deal-breaking perception that you are irresponsible, arrogant, undependable—or worse, untrustworthy.
As a minimum and a clarification, forewarn him or her or provide an outstanding “excuse” after the fact (of the sort described below).
However, and as will be argued below, there are ways to deliberately keep someone waiting that can pay off better than not forcing a wait, even in a broken appointment scenario, but viewed through a different lens.
2. The silent treatment: Even though the deliberately broken appointment is likely to fail on more than one level, including the explicit quasi-contractual level, the “silent treatment”—failure to respond or react, e.g., to an emailed resume, within a reasonably estimated time frame can be worse, despite or because of its vaguer presumption of any exact response time frame.
The reason it can be worse is that at least the iced interviewee perched in the office and the swiveling HR manager waiting for a tardy candidate can confirm the breach of the prior agreement. They both have “semi-closure”, in that they have conclusive confirmation, i.e., proof, that a deadline has passed—unlike the ignored job applicant whose anticipated response deadline exists only in his or her head, as a rule-of-thumb expectation.
Translated into Harlequin-novel terms, this is the difference between getting no reply to a marriage proposal and being left waiting with the preacher at the Las Vegas chapel ceremony-for-two. At least the chapel dumpee knows there was an explicit promise, with an implied right to and expectation of compliance, unlike the suitor who is left to wait with less of a sense of self-righteous entitlement.
Expressed in its simplest terms, this is the difference between simple indignation (of a waiting suitor or unacknowledged resume submitter) and righteous indignation (of a waiting chapel bride-to-be or stood-up recruiter)—the latter somehow feeling more entitled to and comforted by compensating righteous indignation (unless we’re talking about a packed church of witnesses to compound the wedding-day humiliation and dwarf any “feel-better” self-righteousness).
The lack of any such “semi-closure”, combined with greater uncertainty about whether any “right” has been violated, any “contract” breached, is very likely to make anyone given the silent treatment confused as well as angry and suspicious—even to the point of having confusing doubts about his or her doubts or about any right to doubt the waitist.
So, deliberate silent treatment, like deliberately broken appointments, should not be used without some well thought-out rationale—like the following.
3. The “successful failure”: This is an often lampooned tactic designed to impress a waitee by suggesting the waitist is either so successfully busy or unavoidably tied up with someone infinitely more important than the waitee. We’ve all seen movies with such scenes: When the interview or meeting finally begins, the waitist says something like, “So, sorry. Warren (Buffett) urgently had to get hold of me…..Then there was the call from Barack.” In that case, the more important the excuse, the longer the retroactively justified wait can be, even in the eyes of a fuming waitee.
This works, because the waitist’s failure to keep the appointment promise is more than amply offset by the success that necessitates it. Hence, this kind of “successful-failure” cover story can succeed spectacularly, whether true or not.
4.. The Harlequin script: Wondering how The Rules and a typical Harlequin-novel script “make ‘em wait” strategy could ever work entails also wondering how, when or even whether it could ever work in an interview or other business context. To fathom that, it is necessary to plumb the dynamics and assumptions underlying the tactics of a pursued waitist (wo)man.
· Time is a resource: The “make ‘em wait” (MEW) Harlequin waitist operates on the assumption that the more invested in him or her, the more deeply committed the waitee will prove to be or be persuaded (s)he is. Time, like money and pricey gifts, is a valuable resource. Hence, in terms of investment theory, MEW is an effective test and catalyst for “commitment”, e.g., by making a guy suffer agonizing waits for phone calls to be returned (if ever)—a tactic espoused in The Rules.
Applying this rationale to interview situations, does it make sense? It can, if the waitee is but one of many similarly qualified and therefore “expendable”. In that case, MEW can serve as an excellent screening test for candidate commitment.
In more general terms, if the power balance tilts to the waitist, MEW can work. But if the waitee, expendable or not, sees through the tactic and resents it as manipulation, it is very likely to fail.
· Unpredictability is exciting: Rightly or wrongly, a lot of people think that being “unpredictable” while dangling the promise of big rewards is a turn-on—that, in the language of behavioral psychology, putting others on a “variable-interval reinforcement schedule” (a reward scheme with irregular and therefore unpredictable payoffs, e.g., the typical casino slot machine’s payout patterns) is the ideal way to hook and hold them.
On this premise, the willful waitist will unpredictably make someone wait—e.g., the confused, but eager guy waiting for his calls to be returned—because it’s a winning tactic. This means dual unpredictability: (a) when the waiting will be required; (b) how long it will be.
To the extent that we humans thrive on some uncertainty, in virtue of disliking the necessary as much as the impossible, variable interval reinforcement can be highly successful—especially with risk takers and the risk-tolerant, those who get bored easily and those who like going head-to-head with randomly tossed obstacles on the path to potentially high rewards.
· “No Pain, No Gain”: If the waitee and waitist believe “no pain, no gain”, the Harlequin MEW script can be played—although with slightly different interpretations by the two players, the waitist taking the maxim to mean “no inflicted pain on you, no gain for me”.
Accordingly, any applicant who, like a love-struck Harlequin character, not only uncomplainingly accepts being MEWed, but also is somehow energized by it, is likely to gladly become a driven company-workhorse, or otherwise is a run-of-the-mill masochist.
However difficult it may be for you to imagine or accept this last-mentioned sadomasochistic dynamic or other scenarios that legitimize deliberately making someone wait, it is unfortunately undeniable that their existence…
…is a Sade fact of professional as well as private life.