Jeff Bezos poses a great question: How do you say no to annoying meeting requests?

Jeff Bezos would like to decline your meeting request.
Jeff Bezos would like to decline your meeting request.
Image: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis
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This week, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos entertained the internet with a hypothetical question: What’s the right way to say no to a meeting request?

In a post on Instagram, Bezos explained the dilemma this way:

Let’s say you’re at a big cocktail party and someone you don’t know comes up to you while you’re talking to your dad and girlfriend and asks for a meeting. Let’s say this person is the kind of person who actually uses the word “minions” to describe the people who work for you.

How do you respond:

A) Yes, I’ll definitely meet with you.

B) No, I won’t meet with you.

C) Tell you what. Call so and so and they’ll work something out.

D) Quietly resolve to become a shut-in.

E) Something else (fill in the blank)

A Seinfeld “Serenity Now!” button (second pic) for whoever comes up with the best answer.

As you may have guessed, this question wasn’t truly hypothetical. It appears to be a subtweet of White House advisor Peter Navarro, who complained to the Washington Post this week that Bezos had reneged on a promised rendezvous to discuss how Amazon can combat counterfeit third-party sellers on its platform. The Post details Navarro’s side of the story, starting with the moment the economist and trade-policy specialist  spotted Bezos in a tuxedo at the annual invitation-only Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington DC:

On the second floor of the Washington Hilton, in the midst of the party, Navarro approached Bezos and pressed him for a meeting. According to Navarro, Bezos agreed.

“‘Just call Jay Carney; tell him we’ll meet. We’ll get it done,’” Bezos said, referring to Amazon’s senior vice president of global corporate affairs, according to Navarro.

But now Amazon is offering only to have senior executives meet with Navarro, not its chief executive, the White House adviser said.

It’s easy to see why Navarro is miffed. Bezos said they’d meet! Rejection hurts, no matter what the context.

But while many of us have been in Navarro’s shoes, being ghosted either personally or professionally or both (sniff), it’s also true that many people have found themselves on the Bezos side of the equation. Perhaps we weren’t wearing tuxedos when it happened. And perhaps we weren’t planning on hosting a secret after-party at our $23 million mansion afterward. But impromptu requests for meetings, introductions, and pick-your-brain coffee chats are a reality of the professional world, putting many of us very much on the spot at one time or another.

So let’s say we are Bezos—well, not Bezos exactly, because that’s not super-relatable, but somebody who is generally very busy and successful. We’re at a social event, and someone we don’t know interrupts a conversation to ask for a meeting. What is the best way to respond?

Of all the options Bezos presented, it’s easiest to eliminate the “Yes, I’ll definitely meet with you” option. It’s a bad idea to agree to anything right away; it’s only when you get a moment for quiet reflection that you might realize you miscalculated.

Nor is the ideal answer “No, I won’t meet with you.” This could come across as rude, and risks escalating the situation. Now the other person, depending on how mad they’re feeling, might respond with “You’re a jerk!” and then you say, “Don’t talk to me that way in front of my girlfriend, an alive girl,” and then he shoves you and you shove back and now you’re in a fistfight at the Alfalfa Club, at what is no doubt meant to be a sober occasion honoring … the existence of sprouts?

The third option, “Tell you what. Call so and so and they’ll work something out,” is what Bezos actually did. Clearly he thinks this is the best answer. And in comparison to the first two options, it’s easy to see why: This is a way to get the other person out of your hair and kick the problem down the line. It’s like saying “let’s get lunch” to an acquaintance you don’t like very much, without bothering to pin down the exact date.

The fourth possibility, “Quietly resolve to become a shut-in,” is definitely appealing in these situations. Staying at home is lovely: You don’t have to talk to anyone, plus being a hermit is on-trend. You can do crossword puzzles and make tea whenever you want. But holing up in your home forever should be a totally voluntary choice, not a move you’re forced to make in order to avoid pesky meeting requests.

So far, then, the Bezos option—option C—is in the lead. But he does ask for other possible responses, and indeed, there are better ways to handle this kind of scenario.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Liane Davey, organizational psychology expert and author of You First and The Good Fight, suggests several polite but honest ways to decline a meeting. One idea: Just say, “I’m not sure we’re ready for a productive conversation yet. Would it be possible to push this meeting back and let the working group make a little more progress before we meet?” This is a variation on the “Call so-and-so” response, but has the benefit of your being upfront about not wanting to meet—at least, not right now. Depending on the situation, you might try out another Davey-endorsed response: “Thanks for the invite to this meeting. I don’t think I’m required at this point. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to send Jose as my delegate.”

It’s useful to reflect on these kinds of scripts, since it can be hard to remember gracious but firm ways to disappoint people on the spot. And while “have your people call my people” can be a quick way out of a tough situation, it’s better to be honest rather than agree to something you have no intention of following through on.

In Bezos’s case, there’s an additional problem with the way he handled the meeting request: It leaves him open to criticism that—whatever his personal feelings about Navarro—stopping the sale of counterfeit goods on Amazon isn’t really a priority.

An Amazon spokesperson told the Post that the company is already hard at work on tackling fake products, having met with Navarro in the past and spending millions of dollars to address the issue. That said, by all accounts, counterfeiting is still a major problem on Amazon. When you’re the head of a $1 trillion company that’s entangled with pressing global issues of everything from climate change to workers’ rights to privacy concerns and antitrust regulation, perhaps you forfeit the expectation of hobnobbing at parties with serenity.