18

This question was initially triggered by an incident with a houseguest a few months ago.

Earlier in the day, he was tossing up whether to join a group of us who were going out for a drink in the evening or go out dancing. I was indifferent; he was welcome to join us, or he was welcome to go dancing. I didn't mind.

In the evening, as we picked up our stuff and prepared to walk out, I asked him "Are you coming for a drink or going dancing." "I haven't decided," he replied.

I found that a bit bewildering. But, since then I have noticed the same situation happen a few more times.

For example, at a games night, one man was considering joining us to learn a new game. Once again, I did not mind whether he played or not. With everyone else seated at the table, and me holding a deck of cards ready to deal them out, I asked him if he was joining us. "I don't know yet," he replied.

I want to yell at them impatiently "It is decision time! No-one else needed a gold-embossed invitation, or help constructing a pros-and-cons list. This is not an important decision. Hurry up!" I want to yell at them impatiently "Well, we aren't waiting for you. You are uninvited. Go away."

However, I realise that isn't going to help, and there is something blocking them from being able to make a simple decision that I cannot fathom.

How can I politely encourage people to make these trivial decisions quickly when other people can't wait for them (or can't justify waiting for them)?

  • 5
    What's wrong with just going on with your activities? Why does their indecisiveness concern you and makes you impatient/angry (?) In your examples, no one asked to be waited for.. Am I missing anything? – Arsak Mar 25 '19 at 21:28
  • 1
    @Arsak: The game example is easier to explain. If he sat down, I could deal 6 piles, explain the rules once, and 6 of us could play the game. If he walked away, I could deal 5 piles, explain the rules once, and 5 of us could play. Both good outcomes. But if he wavered, I could either have 5 of us wait for him to decide, or plough ahead, deal 5 piles, explain the rules and then have to collect the cards, redeal and re-explain the rules just to him while the others waited. Either way, 5 people are bored (and they have their own time limits to spend on the game) because he can't make a decision. – Oddthinking Mar 25 '19 at 23:20
  • @Arsak: With the houseguest, I was locking up the (short-term hire) venue the group we had been at, enjoying an unrelated activity. If he wanted to dance, I could spend 30 seconds checking he (a foreigner to my city) knew which direction the bus stop was, and that he had an appropriate bus card. Or, he could walk with us to the drinks location; if he dallied until we left, he wouldn't know where it was. In the end, I had to just walk away from him, leaving him alone in a carpark, and feeling like I was being rude. – Oddthinking Mar 25 '19 at 23:27
  • 3
    This might be cultural, in some places people never say "no", instead they say they're not sure or they're busy. Maybe you can tell us where do you live. – Santiago Mar 26 '19 at 12:41
  • I am Australian (who have a reputation for directness). My guest was a Frenchman, via a Pacific Island. The card-not-quite-player was an Australian immigrant from somewhere in the Greater China region. – Oddthinking Mar 27 '19 at 5:58
18

At decision time

Since this is the core of the question I'm putting my advice to it first. I have very little patience for this sort of behavior, so when it's time to go out/start the game/initiate whatever activity you'll be doing, the time for consideration is just about up. I'll usually say something along the lines of

We're about to [head out/start the game/etc.], so unless you come join us now you're deciding "no".

Depending on the people you're with this phrasing might be too impolite or not impolite enough. Its most important features, to my mind, are:

  • It reiterates that events are not waiting on this person's decision: events are moving forward no matter what, and this person can join or not. The activity is for everyone, and it does not center around the least decisive person present.
  • It emphasizes that indecision can't last forever. When the last possible moment to decide arrives, the person can actively choose to join in or else their decision is equivalent to deciding not to join. I've found the "you're making a decision either way" framing useful because it jars people out of the idea that they can be passive here. The decision is theirs to make, and events will proceed from that decision.

With this strategy it's important not to equivocate or allow extra decision time. If the person decides to join after all, then I'll tolerate any necessary delays (finding a coat, getting shoes on, etc.). But they get zero additional time to consider the decision of whether or not to join-- again, anything that isn't a clear "yes" should be treated as a clear "no".


Before decision time

Some people are really indecisive, and actually dither a lot about this kind of choice. The above strategy has worked well for me in dealing with such. But some people seem to have other considerations at play which lead them to pretend that they simply can't make up their minds:

1. Were they told they could join, or asked to join?

For some, the passive invitation ("we've got an extra seat...") isn't enough. A more assertive invitation ("Come join us!") can make it clearer that their presence and participation is desired by the rest of the group. Even when that isn't exactly the case (like when you don't really care if they join or not), it can be helpful to make the situation clearer: you're part of the group, the group is doing a thing, you can/should/might enjoy doing that thing with the group.

2. How much discussion of the indecision has there been?

Some people have legitimate reasons to consider joining an activity more carefully, but they won't necessarily share those reasons. When I don't care if the person joins it's less likely that I will try to get that information, and when I don't have the information the reasoning seems opaque and needlessly indecisive. If you're all going to a bar to dance, but person A's foot is hurting a bit and they aren't sure they'll have fun dancing, a very brief discussion can reveal that and allow for new information to come into play and (maybe) resolve the indecision:

Me: Hey, we're going out dancing. Would you like to come with us?

A: I don't know, I haven't decided yet. // This is where conversations might end, if I don't care about the person coming along or not

Me: Why don't you want to come?

A: Oh, my foot's been bothering me, I don't think I'd have much fun dancing all night.

Me: Well, if you don't want to come that's fine. But there is plenty of other stuff to do there besides dance. They have [bar games/sports on TV/whatever], and we won't all be dancing all the time. For the most part we'll probably just be sitting at a table talking over drinks!

It's a contrived example, I know. But now instead of silently thinking about whether or not their foot is in good enough condition for dancing, A has reasons to come along besides the dancing, and the reasoning behind the original reluctance is visible. That last point is important-- when you don't know the reasons, it all seems like useless dithering.

3. Be prepared for "no", and don't require that the person explicitly reject joining

Not every person enjoys every activity equally, all the time. And not every person likes direct communication. It's totally possible that an activity doesn't really appeal to someone, but for whatever reason they don't want to just say "no"-- they'd rather sort of seem interested, but then find that everyone has moved on without them. They don't have to join in, and they don't have to opt out. Treating these situations as potential yes-es can cause friction, as this type of person may not want to say yes or no.

So this one ties in with my suggestion at the top: the closer it gets to decision time, the more an indecisive stance should be treated as a standing "no". Totally changeable, and without any sort of penalty, but until they say "yes, I'd like to join" plans should primarily be organized around the idea that the person will not be joining. The closer it gets to decision time the more strongly I would weight a "maybe" towards "no".

  • 1
    I'm much more decisive now, but in the past I've been very indecisive, and sometimes still am. +1 for your point (1): A more assertive invitation ("Come join us!") can make it clearer that their presence and participation is desired by the rest of the group. helps me a lot! Sometimes I feel awkward joining someone or trying something new, but an assertive invitation and a little encouragement really helps me out. – mgarey Mar 27 '19 at 22:50
18

Oof, this I can relate to. My friends and I are planning a trip to a big city in the midwest and we had two people who had been "maybe's" for 4 months. I'd been bugging them once every few weeks (probably the equivalent in your case of asking once every hour or so), but I'd still get an "Eh, I'm not sure yet. But I'm still interested in coming!"

Finally we got our "yes's" together and discussed it. Hotel prices were only going up and we had to book soon. So we gave our two friends a hard deadline of a week. We told them something like:

I know your plans are still up in the air, but we need to know how many of us are going so we can book our hotel--and prices are only going up. We would love to have you on this trip with us, but we really can't wait any longer to get the hotel. We're planning to do it next week, so we'll need to know whether or not you're coming by then so we can get enough rooms.

And low and behold, three days later (not even the full week) we had one "maybe" turn into a "yes" and the other turn into a "no."

Give your friend a hard deadline

If you suggest an activity and they respond with anything that's not a hard "yes" or "no," let them know that you're fine with them not giving you an answer now, but you're going to need it by XX:XXpm so that you can properly plan.

If they still haven't given you an answer by then (despite your reminding them), then put them down as a no and tell them as much. This makes the decision easy. Either they decide yes/no by the deadline, or if not, it's an automatic no (though maybe you give them one last chance at the deadline).

As long as you communicate clearly in advance (read: when you extend the invite) that there's a deadline, then the burden of responding is on them. You're extending them a favor with this invite and making it clear that this is a closing window of opportunity.

  • I think this is good advice for a bigger decision over a longer timeframe. (It reminds me of a frustrating time where I wanted to order a batch of hoodies, and seemed to have a dozen people wavering on a simple decision: didn't they want to buy this item of clothing or not? In that case, I cared, because the bigger the order, the cheaper the result.) However, I don't think it is as applicable here, where the decisions are smaller and shorter timeframe. With the card game, the whole decision making process was a couple of minutes while I gathered a tableful of interested people. – Oddthinking Mar 25 '19 at 23:34
  • With the dancer, I had little idea that the decision would come to a head like this. There was no planning involved on my behalf; no need for an RSVP by a certain time. He could have happily left the decision until 15 seconds before we started walking... but it was literally time to start walking, and he still hadn't made a decision, and I was left unprepared with what to say. – Oddthinking Mar 25 '19 at 23:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.