3 Ways to Tell if Someone Is About to Waste Your Time

Uninterested woman looks out the window while someone out of frame talks to her.
Photo: lechatnoir/Getty Images

I checked my hair for flyaways for the 11th time and walked into the meeting. The opportunity seemed perfectI was in the seed fundraising stage with my startup, and this investor was active in our space and showed excitement about our mission. Locking in a lead investor wouldn’t just secure us funding; it would also legitimize our business to other venture capital funds looking to invest.

I stood at the front of the room and gave my pitch, and before we parted ways that day, the fund principal said they’d email me shortly about “next steps.”

I could barely contain my excitement.

The first email arrived right on schedule — a simple request for sales and web traffic data — and I quickly complied. Then one email became another, and another, the complexity escalating with each request, until eventually I was building them a full-scale financial model. Aware of what was at stake, I happily jumped through each new hoop. Any day now, we’d be doing the deal, I told myself.

Unfortunately, that message never came. After two months filled with a steady stream of new requests, the emails abruptly ended. So did the replies. They ghosted me.

I was back to the drawing board, bewildered, exhausted, and most of all, disappointed.

Life is full of interactions that don’t go anywhere. Plenty of people act without intention, make offers they don’t aim to fulfill, and present opportunities they don’t plan to see through. They do things simply out of curiosity, validation-seeking, or plain negligence.

While these people are definitely full of it, they’re not necessarily liars. And that’s what makes them so difficult to spot: Our standard BS detectors often fail us in the absence of evasiveness, manipulation, or a murky agenda. We get caught up with what’s on the table.

How do you know if you just can’t take someone seriously? How can you tell if someone who’s otherwise competent, reputable, and trustworthy is likely to waste your time?

The key is to look for low-quality communication. When people are just not serious about you, here are the three things they don’t do:

They don’t show curiosity about things you’ve shared

They ask you questions, but only to gather the information they need for their own purposes. It’s not about you. Maybe they want to learn about a certain market. Maybe they want benchmarks against another opportunity they’re pursuing. Regardless, they don’t dig in or follow up on items you’ve shared, they don’t probe, they don’t analyze or assess. Questions stay on the surface, and what’s missing is a genuine curiosity about your story.

The investor who ghosted me kept asking for more, but never went deeper. By contrast, the investors who did end up writing checks asked incisive follow-up questions, such as “So we looked at your unit economics; they’re good for an early-stage business, but what are your plans to improve them as you scale?” If someone is not curious, they’re not serious.

They don’t follow their offers with action steps

“My neighbor is an editor at Food & Wine magazine, you should show him your cupcake recipes!” “My old college roommate is head of R&D at a product development company! You guys should talk about the app you’re building, it could be a fit.” “You should share your dress sketches with a designer — my friend works at Oscar de la Renta, I should introduce you!”

We’ve all heard versions of this from colleagues or friends. The tip-off that these introductions probably won’t pan out is simple: None of these statements has been actioned. You can be much more confident if an offer sounds more like this: “My neighbor is an editor at Food and Wine magazine, come to my BBQ next weekend, and I’ll introduce you.” Or, “My friend works at Oscar de la Renta, I’ll email her this afternoon and ask if she can speak with you.”

They don’t remember the things that matter to you

It’s easy for someone to make you feel special during a conversation with lots of compliments and eye contact. But you know they’re really interested in you if they’ve intentionally created space in their brain for what matters to you. They will remember that you have a significant event coming up, or that you’ve been dealing with a conflict, and they’ll ask you about it.

This shows intent because it takes work. They’re making an investment of their energy — an investment in you.

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