’Tis the season to be flaky, as holiday parties stack up in our Google calendars like Tetris blocks, annual work projects come due, and all the sort-of friends you’ve put off seeing for months want to “catch up over drinks” before Dry January kicks in. The true Christmas miracle is that it’s cold season, so all of the minor illnesses you invent to get out of stuff seem plausible.
Even when it’s not time for endless school holiday concerts and book-club white-elephant parties, we’re living in a veritable age of cancellation. Virtually every kind of food, entertainment, and alcohol can be delivered to your house, negating the need to ever leave it. Introversion is a badge of honor now, so you can’t begrudge someone the need for quiet time alone to recharge—it’s that person’s identity. We all know the relief of learning that someone just canceled on you, thus making you the cancelee, though, let’s face it, you would just as likely have been the canceler.
I am the queen of cancellation.“Heyyyyy guyyyyyyyssss—” begins a typical email from me backing out of plans, yet again. (The Ys multiply the guiltier I feel, and the more recently I’ve no-showed.) A book thing came up, and it has to be done by Monday, so I can’t use that non-transferable ticket you got me after all. Or I’m sick, again. But actually sick this time—not pretending to be sick so I can run errands without making anyone mad. To make time to copyedit something, I canceled on a work party of my boyfriend’s, then canceled on my own work party for good measure. I’ve started feebly sending this same boyfriend to social engagements in my stead, like a sad foreign minister from Flake Nation.
The true cancel culture, it could be said, is the flurry of factors that makes Americans so likely to back out of plans these days. We work horrendously long hours, so you might genuinely feel more exhausted by Friday evening than you thought you would on Monday. And because texting makes it so easy—so much less awkward than calling or simply not showing up—people seem to be canceling later and less apologetically these days, says Andrea Bonior, a D.C.-based licensed clinical psychologist and the author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends.
Still, the sentiment of the day seems to whiplash between the joy of canceling plans and outrage at the audacity of people who cancel plans. “If my mail is any indication, then the skipping out on established plans is practically an epidemic now,” Carolyn Hax, a syndicated advice columnist for The Washington Post, told me via email. People even fail to show up to weddings. “ENOUGH!” a wedding planner ranted in HuffPost in 2015. “Unless you're in the hospital or have just had a death in your immediate family, there is no excuse to no-show at a wedding. EVER. It’s very rude.”
As for whether you can cancel on someone, the experts told me a few obvious rules apply: Doing it for a seated dinner party is worse than for a happy hour at a bar; it’s unthinkable for a wedding but probably fine for a free-flowing Super Bowl party. If you have to cancel, provide a sound reason and issue a genuine, heartfelt apology. Can’t make it simply doesn’t cut it. Hax considers work to be a valid reason to change plans. “It just has to be actual, unforeseeable work and not I-procrastinated-all-day carelessness,” she says.
But even if we can make our cancellations more graceful, both Hax and Bonior say that sometimes making the plan is when we fail. “Sometimes overpromising comes from a pleasing impulse: ‘Yeah, I can get there by 7,’ when you know that’s nearly impossible,” Hax says. If you know you can’t do something, or you know you won’t be in the mood, just say no ahead of time.
Then there’s work that spills over the edges of the workday—something took longer than it should have, or an unexpected deadline popped up. If you work in a profession where this is common, there are ways to tactfully respond “maybe” in advance. “Hey, I know that’s going to be a really busy time. I really would love to come, but I’ve got to tell you, I can’t totally commit” is how Bonior would do it.
She says the reason people don’t decline up front is because they want to postpone the awkwardness of “saying no,” which feels like a threat to a relationship. But doing so regularly risks puts you at risk for earning a reputation as a chronic flake, which is ultimately damaging to friendships anyway, Bonior says. You start to feel like you can’t really count on each other, and then like you can’t really trust each other, and if you don’t really ever see each other because one of you keeps canceling—well, do you even really know each other?
Another good reason to say no ahead of time is the excuse so often given for last-minute cancellations: self-care, that internet-y realization that a human body cannot type on a computer for 12 hours a day without suffering wear and tear. Now that simple things like showering and eating vegetables have ascended to the quasi-medical realm, some people cancel and simply plead a deficit of rest and electrolytes. But Bonior, who often works with people who have anxiety and depression, says real self-care is a persistent daily habit, not an excuse you deploy at the last minute. “You’ve got to look at your week and say, okay, maybe that third event over the weekend is going to be too much,” she says.
Besides, friendship provides so many benefits, it’s worth considering whether you really want to cancel just so you can work more or re-watch The Great British Bake Off by yourself. Though it can be comforting in the moment, loneliness is terrible for you. “Sometimes prioritizing friendships is a little bit like exercise,” Bonior says, “you might not want to do it at first, but after you’ve done it, you feel really good.” After all, there’s self-care, but there’s also what Hax calls “friends’-feelings care.” Sometimes they’re more important than having perfectly recharged batteries.
But as for this weekend, I really can’t make it—I’ll be out of town.