It’s not the not arriving, it’s the coming back

If you’ve ever been a tenant, you’ll probably know that landlords in this country are obliged by law to give 24 hours’ notice of a visit. But you’ll also know that this doesn’t eliminate the stress-inducing uncertainty around visits to the property. Why? Because they’re not obliged by law to actually turn up for the arranged visit. Or to tell you that they’re not turning up. Which means they can and often will fail to turn up, leaving you waiting in your unnaturally tidy flat, unable to make other plans or relax in your own home.

It’s a similar thing with repair and maintenance work. The landlord or letting agency says “We’ll send someone round as soon as possible” and then you often have a whole week of knowing that a stranger will be given keys to your home and could turn up and let themselves in at any time, with no further warning. You can’t complain, because they’re turning up at your request to fix something that needs fixing, but the “24 hours’ notice” thing doesn’t stop you feeling jumpy for a week or more.

The problem with someone not turning up is not that they haven’t turned up; it’s that they will now turn up at a different time. This applies whether they were supposed to come to your house or meet you elsewhere. If a no-show meant a cut-and-dried cancellation, it would be fine and dandy. But most of the time, a no-show means that you have to go through the whole thing again. Unless you’re in a position of power over the person who hasn’t turned up, they get to take double the time and mental energy from you. Quadruple or more if they keep things uncertain.

And, of course, if that person is in a position of power over you, the no-show matters. It means Hoovering and plumping the cushions twice, or maybe getting dressed up and travelling somewhere twice. It means worry and uncertainty and not knowing how much anger to show.

You see, almost every “yes” is conditional, but the conditions often go unsaid. “Yes, you can borrow my camera” doesn’t mean “Yes, you can come round at any time, day or night, to borrow my camera.” “Want to meet up for lunch on Thursday?” doesn’t mean “Feel free to ignore my calls until noon on Thursday; I’ll keep lunch free and travel to your end of town just in case.”

So when your no-show pulls the classic trick of reappearing after you’d forgotten about them, demanding the thing you originally offered but with different conditions attached, it’s hard to say no because you’ve already said yes. Your “yes” was conditional, but you didn’t make that explicit. “We agreed I could pop round with that stuff from work, so why are you suddenly being weird about it? I know I was supposed to be there yesterday – sorry about that – but I’m in the area now, so why can’t I just come round?”

It’s the same reason why you can’t yell at the letting agency for sending round a plumber. “You rang us yesterday asking when we were going to send a plumber round! OK, so we didn’t ring you back, but we did something better – we actually sorted out a plumber! I’m sorry you felt awkward having a stranger let themselves into your house while you were in the shower, but you’re the one who keeps nagging us for a plumber.” The accepted view appears to be that if you’ve let someone down on one occasion, you get a free pass to turn up unannounced or at short notice on any subsequent occasion of your choice. Needless to say, I don’t see it that way. But I try to understand the people who do, because understanding is key to dealing with them.

My guess is that usually, a person who fails to turn up doesn’t understand how much stress they’re causing. In situations where the power balance is on their side, they often genuinely don’t recognise that. It’s easy to let friendly relations mask a power differential. “Yeah, I know I’m his landlord/boss, but we have a really good relationship.”

But there is, no doubt about it, a lot of unexamined privilege underlying no-show behaviour. It’s time-stealing, but it’s based on entitlement rather than insecurity. People who don’t turn up are using other people’s willingness to commit in order to keep their own options open, without ever dreaming that failing to turn up could jeopardise what’s planned.

And, of course, it’s a long-winded way of refusing to give you a no. If someone keeps saying “yes” but keeps failing to deliver on it, it’s another way of refusing to give you the closure that a “no” would bring.

So what can you do? Just recognising the behaviour is a good start. Realising that they’re likely to suddenly reappear, probably without apology, is helpful too. (The reappearance is more annoying if you thought you were off the hook.) But recognising it doesn’t mean putting up with it silently. Get in touch, ask where they were, explain they haven’t met your expectations and push them to make proper arrangements for the highly likely reappearance.

If you didn’t want to see them in the first place, it’s tricky because you’re tempted to let it slide and hope they forget completely. But if you have something they want, they probably won’t. And “something they want” could well include your time and energy. So I would still suggest chasing, continuing to try to pin them down. And if the power differential allows it, you’re well within your rights to be openly angry and cancel the whole thing. That way you get out of it but keep the moral high ground.

A word of warning: don’t try to enforce time limits with a lie, e.g. “We’re going out at 7pm, so you’ll have to come round before then.” It is entirely possible that they’ll ignore your lie, like they ignored your previous arrangement(s), like they ignored basic etiquette, and come round anyway when you’re supposed to be out. Then you have to tell another lie to explain why you’re in. Yes. Lying to explain why you’re in your own home, to someone who doesn’t respect you enough to stick to a simple arrangement. What was that about a power differential?

Also: try to avoid basing initial arrangements on self-stories. By that I mean the stories people tell themselves about themselves. Sometimes they’re so invested in those stories that they’ll make arrangements with other people based on them.  “I’m always in the office by 8am. Talk then?” “I’m stuck at home with the baby, so come round literally any time.” “I practically live in the Starbucks on the High Street. Come and grab me there.”

Basing an arrangement on a self-story sets up a bad power differential: you are trying to fit in with something they claim to be doing anyway. That means they don’t have to plan anything different in order to meet you, which means that they won’t have to make an effort to remember to meet you, which means that if their self-story isn’t completely true, they’ll let you down.

So how do you deal with that? For a start, don’t challenge the self-story, because they’ll get defensive. My personal technique is to take the self-story at face value but then charmingly contrive to arrange something else. “Must be a nightmare being stuck at home all day! How about we meet in the park round the corner, just to get you out of the house?” “I bet they’ve put up a plaque to you in that Starbucks! But you’ve got to try the coffee at this new place…”

None of this works all the time. But just being aware of the dynamics of the situation can really help with how you feel about no-shows.

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Explore posts in the same categories: anti-time-stealer hacks, manipulation, time-stealer tricks, time-stealers

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