The Priceless Payoff

The first time I tried to bribe someone, I fell flat on my face—literally. It was the day before college graduation, and I’d forgotten to make dinner arrangements for my relatives. I’d already disconnected my phone, so I trudged from restaurant to restaurant in increasing panic—every table had been reserved for weeks. At the fanciest place in town, I pulled out all the stops. “Will this help?” I gasped, tugging a wrinkled $20 bill from my jeans. Rejected, cheeks burning, I caught my heel on the steps on the way out and crashed ignominiously to the sidewalk.

Granted, my delivery needed work. But my error was more fundamental. Nietzsche isn’t generally considered a smooth operator, but he understood that bestowing a gift gives you power, because it puts the recipient at an obligation. Bribes are no different: Simply put, they express gratitude avant la lettre—and if you think of it this way, it’s clear that cash is sadly inadequate. You’d never send a wad of twenties as a thank-you gift—how vulgar! So why would you proffer them as a bribe?

The cash-free bribe, on the other hand, carries no risk of offense. You’re not greasing palms: You’re providing a social lubricant.

Gift-bribes require a delicate touch—there’s more to it than simply whipping out a folded bill. At an overbooked restaurant, skip the hostess and head straight to the bar. Order two bottles of wine, and send one to the chef. Now tip lavishly, turn on the charm, and, after a glass or two, wistfully mention your longing for a table. One word to the hostess from your new best friend the bartender, and you’re in.

The best gift-bribes are logistically difficult to return. For the admissions office, a five-foot Meyer-lemon tree makes a dramatic impression—and will serve as a daily reproach should your daughter’s application fail to move to the top of the stack. Or consider the case of a friend who, upon learning his prospective boss liked to surf, drove him out to Montauk and showed him a hidden point break. (He got the job.)

But grand gestures should be avoided—you don’t want to make the recipient’s obligation too obvious. Little gifts, spaced out over time, keep psychic debt accruing. One clever acquaintance, pursuing an appointment with a famously inaccessible CEO, discovered that his quarry collected detective fiction. He sent a signed first edition of a new crime novel to the man’s office every week—and by the sixth week received a lunch invitation.

In some situations, an excessively extravagant gift suggests you could actually go further. In a real-estate bidding war, for instance, small, personally targeted items are more likely to convince the sellers you’re the rightful owner of their precious apartment. Dinner for two, on you, at a great restaurant in the sellers’ new neighborhood gilds the lily nicely without going over the top.

Personal trouble is the one scenario when it’s okay to swing for the fences—like the wayward boyfriend of a professor I know. After a terrible fight, her morning lecture was interrupted by the delivery of an actual doghouse, stuffed with chocolates, champagne, flowers, and contrite billets-doux. (Her students burst into applause, and she took him back.)

If all else fails, consider bribery’s pathetic cousin—supplication. As I staggered to my feet that last day of college, looking back pitifully at the restaurant, the maître d’ who’d snubbed me appeared at my side like an angel. “Perhaps I can make arrangements,” he murmured. Ten minutes later, I was dabbing my knees with a cocktail napkin at the bar, a table for six to my name. When I tried to pay for my soda, the bartender waved me off. “Your money’s no good here,” she said. Words, it turns out, to live by.

The Priceless Payoff