Mark Sherman: Don’t keep me waiting

Mark-Sherman SQUAREAlthough I’ve always been good with deadlines, I do have a problem with being late when I’m meeting someone. I am not proud of this, since I know how I feel when someone is late to meet me. But, hey, I’m a really busy guy, and even though I’m supposed to be joining someone in half an hour I’m going to keep working on this now, and if that makes me a little late, well, sorry.

Like every other aspect of human behavior, lateness (or one of its many equivalent terms, such as “tardiness,” “unpunctuality” – yes, there is such a word – or “not giving a damn”) has been studied extensively by psychologists. In fact, years ago a friend co-wrote a paper with a student, titled “Status and Its Relation to Waiting.” It showed that people will wait longer for higher-status people than they will for lower-status ones. (When he gave me a signed reprint of his paper, he wrote just above his signature, “Don’t keep me waiting.”)

So, listen, if a friend keeps you waiting regularly, what do you think that means? He or she thinks they’re higher status than you are. What do you do about that? Easy. You be the one to arrive late. And then, of course, experiencing this, the next time your friend will arrive even later. And eventually the friendship will be over. And who cares? Who needs friends that keep us waiting? Unless, of course, your friend happens to be famous, in which case you’ll wait hours, if not days, for him or her to arrive.


If you think about it, this waiting thing is indeed a clear indicator of who has the higher status. Here’s an obvious example: You go to a doctor’s office, and what do you have? A “waiting” room. And who is waiting? Are there several doctors sitting around the room reading magazines (hopefully having something to do with their specialty) and waiting for you? No, it’s you. You wait for them.

Or you go for a job interview. You know how important it is to arrive on time. But the person who is going to interview you? What do you say if he or she arrives ten, 15, or even 30 minutes late? You’ll act like they were right on time and you will grovel.

Of course, you could be bold, and when the interviewer walks in late you could say, “You know I’ve been waiting 20 minutes! I don’t like that,” and there a chance the interviewer will say, “Wow, someone who is assertive! That’s what our company is looking for! I’ve seen your résumé, I know you’ve got the right credentials, you’re hired!”

But there is a much bigger chance he’ll say, “Well, your waiting is over. You’ll get a job at this company when the first manned spaceship lands on Jupiter!”

As in so many things in life, the anger you may feel over waiting can be greatly eased by an apology. What I can’t stand is when I go to a doctor, go into the exam room, have my vitals taken, sit there for half an hour, and when the doctor finally walks in, he says, with a smile, “So how are you?” I feel like screaming, “How am I? You ask, how am I? How do you think I am, having sat here for the last half-hour, reading Better Homes and Gardens?”

But all I will say, if anything, is “Well, I’ve been waiting in here quite a while,” to which the doctor may reply, “I just have so many patients. You know what it’s like in this office.” (The unspoken subtext reads, “I have to see so many patients in order to afford the luxurious house and cars I own, and the trips I take.”)

Why can’t the doctor just say, as an occasional one has, “Sorry to keep you waiting.”?

Of course, if you want to achieve really high status, don’t just keep someone waiting, stand him up! That’s right, just don’t show up. And when he calls to ask you what’s going on, say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m just so busy, I forgot about you. Let’s reschedule.”

If you’re on the receiving end of this, assert yourself — please. Don’t just meekly say your usual, “Oh, I feel bad you’re so busy. Of course we can reschedule! I’m honored that you’d even want to.” Instead say, “Oh, yeah? Well, reschedule this!” Just make sure you slam down your phone before your former friend slams down his, and you’ll feel your status go through the roof. Now you’re a somebody!