I should be knee-deep in margaritas with an ex-colleague but, after four hours of meetings, I cancelled mid-arvo citing a migraine. So, I’m squirming slightly as the young Queen Elizabeth insists, “We must keep every appointment!” just as WhatsApp informs me the friend I've flaked on is ‘typing.’ What’s the worst she can do, though? Hit me with an angry emoji?
If you consider your own plan-keeping etiquette more in line with the social rigour of a 1950s royal, you’re the exception – or you’re deluding yourself. Recent data shows we follow through on just 50 per cent of our plans. Perhaps more surprising is that, while flaking might deliver a delicious short-term pay-off (couch + trackies + Netflix = bliss, after all), the constant, seemingly innocuous making and breaking of social plans isn’t doing your health any favours.
“It’s becoming an epidemic,” says Dr Andrea Bonior, psychology professor at Georgetown University and author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing and Keeping Up With Your Friends. “And the more socially acceptable this cancelling of plans becomes, the more people will do it, regardless of whether they like how it’s making them feel.”
Tell anyone over age 50 that you cancelled on your best mate with three hours notice because you realised a new episode of Big Little Lies was ready on catch-up and they’d be horrified. What’s considered good manners has shifted, especially now we can arrange plans by tapping a screen – and can therefore cancel them just as easily. “If you couldn’t make it to your dinner plans 20 years ago, your only option was to call the restaurant in the hope of catching your friend,” says Bonior.
“There was no guarantee you’d get hold of them, so you risked leaving them sitting at the table alone.” Today? Send a text. Job done. And you know you’re golden once you see the read receipt; no awkward conversation necessary. “Essentially, you’re detonating a social hand grenade and running away,” says Bonior.
Bailing without fail
You can’t park your penchant for flaking fully at the door of evolving technology, says Dr Svend Brinkmann, psychologist and author of Stand Firm: Resisting the Self Improvement Craze. He says the reason that momentary pang of guilt on bailing is mixed with relief is that it’s become the only way of lessening the burden of unrealistic commitments weighing on your shoulders. “We live in a world where invitations are constantly fired at us through our phones, and the message from self-help books and social media is that, in order to live a rich and full life, your default should be to say yes. In short, people-pleasing has morphed into a state of permanent acceptance.” And while you might feel that bailing lightens your load, this behaviour actually feeds the flaking cycle.
“The more you expect yourself and others to cancel plans, the more likely you are to be unrealistic and make arrangements that you can’t – or won’t – actually honour,” he says.
It’s not surprising if you find yourself in a position where flaking feels like the only option – even if it goes against your deeper values.
“Flakiness has always infuriated me,” says Claudia, 26. “If a friend thinks it’s fine to let me block out my evening for them and then cancel an hour before, on some level they believe their time is more important than mine.” But since her responsibilities at work have increased over the past year, Claudia’s caught herself cancelling on other people at short notice. “On one hand, the ambitious, people-pleasing side of me is driving me to get that promotion, cultivate zen-like calm through yoga and catch up with friends over dinner. But then my body – which I drag out of bed at 6am every weekday to exercise and then put through nine hours’ work in a high-pressure environment – feels so tired that I want to crawl into a dark room and cry.”
The downside of this growing habit of flaking isn’t just that you could struggle to tap into what your body and mind can legitimately manage. Experts say it could hamper your personal happiness.
According to an evolutionary psychology theory called the Savanna Principle, getting a balance between social interaction and space is a must when it comes to wellbeing. So by blocking out too much of your social calendar (robbing yourself of space) or flaking on most of your plans in favour of scrolling Instagram in bed (bye, social interaction), you’re doing yourself an injustice. Most of us fight a constant internal battle to meet both of these needs, leading flaking to become a modern epidemic. You cram your diary with social events because you want to see your friends, but the utter lack of free time wears you down and you cancel to create the space you’re programmed to crave.
The result? Jeopardising your most valuable interpersonal relationships – another essential for emotional wellbeing.
“Saying that you’re going to do something and then not doing it is destructive to a friendship because it interferes with the expectations and values of another person,” says Bonior. “If you’ve committed to a plan, that becomes reality for the other person and they’ll naturally feel let down if it doesn’t happen.”
And let’s be clear, just because the lack of consequence makes you feel like no damage has been done, it doesn’t mean that’s the case. “Your friends are unlikely to tell you that they’re disappointed with your behaviour,” says Daniel Post Senning, co-host of the Awesome Etiquette podcast. So, instead, resentment builds, disappointment grows and suddenly your bond isn’t as rock solid as it used to be. His advice? “Don’t wait to have bailed so much that friends begin to actually call you out on it. By the time that happens, it’s likely you’ve already done serious damage to your reputation – or worse, you’ll be quietly phased out instead.”
Want to see in next year with some mates left? Then make changes now. The first step is working out why you’re so inclined to cancel.
“If you find yourself consistently bailing on the same person, ask yourself if the friendship has run its course, or if there’s an unresolved issue,” says Bonior. If it’s the former, then consider this permission to execute what she calls the ‘slow fade’. “Send subtle hints by not responding to their messages for a while, or not going into detail when you talk,” she says. This works if your former pal’s feelings are mutual, but if they don’t get the message, or question your behaviour, be direct.
“Say: ‘I know I haven’t been able to hang out as much lately. My life’s been moving in a direction that’s meant I can’t devote enough time to our friendship.’ That way, they’ll know where they stand – and will likely stop suggesting you meet up.”
If, though, a niggling issue is making the thought of spending time with them unbearable, act strategically. “Give your friend a heads-up that you want to talk,” she says. Face-to-face is ideal, a phone call is acceptable – laying out your grievances over WhatsApp is strictly vetoed. Before you talk, ask yourself what you actually want to get out of it: do you want an apology, for them to change their behaviour in future or just to get this off your chest?
“Remember this is a conversation – accept that they might not respond how you want them to and be willing to listen,” adds Dr Bonior.
If it’s a straight-up case of flaking due to fatigue, the answer is simpler. Be more cautious about committing. Claudia pared back her habit of saying yes.
“I decided I didn’t want to be a flake, but there are only so many hours in my day, so the only thing in my control was to stop over-promising,” she says. “I no longer commit to midweek dinners if there’s a risk I might have to work late and I politely decline Friday night drinks knowing there isn’t a single invite that will bring me more pleasure than donning PJs and sinking into the couch come 7pm – and I’m OK with that.”
And if others aren’t? Well, they probably deserve to be flaked on, tbh.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Women's Health.