Why the best plan is a cancelled plan


“Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Not me, I flaked. I’m at home on my couch wearing pyjama pants, playing on my phone and watching TV. To be fair, we both knew this would happen.”

Amy* posted that tweet in January. Amy* is her real first name but she doesn’t give her real last name because she doesn’t want her employer or her mother to know she prefers stretch elastic pants to small talk at parties.

By day, Amy is a 31-year-old Auckland professional. By night, Amy is a 31-year-old professional Aucklander. By which I mean that at some point she smiled when you said “let’s grab a drink” but that was eight years ago and you freelance from Dubai now. Amy did not attend your leaving party and Amy is not alone (though that would absolutely be her preference).

No-shows are the new normal. Internationally the trend is so big it has been monetised. In 2016, the Huffington Post deliberately targeted introverts with the launch of a Facebook page called “cancelled plans”. The acceptable face of introversion is routinely celebrated in listicles with titles like “22 Things Only People Who Love Cancelled Plans Will Understand”. Some time in the not-too-distant future, Sarah Jessica Parker will announce a Sex and the City special filmed entirely in her apartment, in which she sits at a laptop in expensive leisurewear cancelling appointments and typing grammatically incorrect questions. (“Women are told to fake it till we make it – but would we rather just flake it? Etc.”)

Back to Amy. I track her down on a Thursday and she promises to talk to me at 9.30am on Friday. At 10.15am on Friday, she texts to reschedule.

“That’s hilarious,” she acknowledges, when we finally speak at 3pm that day. She gives herself a stern telling-off: “You flaked on my interview, you absolute flaker!” But I can tell she doesn’t mean it.

“I probably felt more social pressure when I was younger,” she says. “Peer pressure slash FOMO slash whatever, to be where I said I would be. And then it just went away. And now I go where I want to go.

“Birthdays,” says Amy. “Every. F***ing. Year. Nope! House warmings? You bought a house, your parents helped you, I’m kind of jealous to be honest, I’m definitely not schlepping out to go buy you a cactus and say, ‘Well done on that thing.'”

Things she won’t miss tend to fall into the “one-off” category. Baby showers. Weddings. But Amy and her wife are expecting a child and her friends with birthdays should know “the payload is coming”.

“I soon don’t have to do anything. This is the dream. ‘No, I’m sorry, I can’t make it, I’ve got an 18-year-old, I couldn’t possibly’ … At some point that excuse is going to run out and then I’ll be old or something but I cannot tell you how thrilled I am that I’m about to have a child and will have a genuine excuse to never leave my home.”

Initially, I thought Amy was exaggerating, but then she told me two stories. There was the time her wife organised a visit to friends with a new baby. On the day, Amy flaked. She was, eventually, dragged out of the house on the promise of chicken nuggets and a Starbucks coffee from Sylvia Park. She was carrying these items when she arrived at her own surprise 30th birthday party.

“I had an amazing time,” she concedes. “This is the one time I would not have preferred to have been at home on my couch. But I didn’t know it at the time. I couldn’t make an informed choice, so I thought I was making the right call.”

Amy says her friends know and understand she is a flaker.

“I flake so religiously that everyone knows that it will happen and now I do not need to provide explanations.”

That “yes” she clicks on a Facebook invite? That’s her way of telling you she really wishes she was going to your event that she has no plans to attend.

“It’s important to me that the ‘yes’ goes out.”

One time, she said yes to a party and her friend phoned to say, “Actually, you do have to come,” because he was planning to propose to his partner.

“I was the only person at the party that knew … “

Amy thinks her parents would be horrified at the extent of her flaking (“I was very strictly raised to go to things, attend things, to be on time and well dressed with an appropriate gift) but she has also come to know her own limitations.

“What it comes down to is introversion versus extroversion … if you’re an introvert and you go out, then that will be draining for you. Whereas if you’re an extrovert and going out gives you life, then being exhausted means you NEED to go out and do something.”

Her day job is “human-heavy”. She also, she says, has a “pretty extreme social anxiety – and the only way to cope is extreme over-compensation”. When Amy goes out, she feels pressure to sparkle.

“I am always, 100 per cent on. The exhaustion of that is, I think, a huge part of why I don’t want to go out … it’s a real performance and so the people that I see the most are the people that I don’t need to do that with. I call them my comfy-pant friends. If they’re someone I can wear my comfy pants around, I’ll go.”

***
Why do people flake? And what are the wider implications of our apparent acceptance of such an unreliable world? I arrange to speak to Dr Nickola Overall, a professor at the University of Auckland’s School of Psychology, at 9am on a Friday. At 8.15am on Friday, she emails and asks to reschedule.

At 3.15pm on Monday, she tells me she has seen no data confirming flakiness is on the rise, “but my sense is that it probably is – but, also, that we’re more aware of it, because now we’re posting it on social media”.

I do some research. Overall is correct.

Actual real-life post #1: “If you cancel plans on me last minute when I’ve just done my makeup that costs more than your life I will kinda really hate u. Like a whole f***ing lot.”
Actual e-greeting card #1: “Let’s make and immediately cancel plans 12 times to show how invested we are in our friendship.”

As the old meme goes: The best plan is a cancelled plan.

Overall suggests flakiness could be born from Western societal expectations.

“We are in a society now where we have to be great and we should be focusing on our career and we should be these amazing people who have all these goals and interests and so on; and women can do it just like men; and success means being available all the time and prioritising our personal accomplishments over other more mundane elements of our life, like close relationships.”

She warns, “Whenever we let down close others or friends, we are, in some ways, risking our relationships.”

While some commentators describe no-shows as selfish and the flaker who calls for “me time” as narcissistic, Overall thinks burnout is a real problem.

“In some ways, being able to say we’re flaking is another way in which we’re showing people that we’re doing what we’re being asked to do. ‘I’m so friggin’ tired because I’ve worked my 60 hours’ – that’s what we value now and so I can verbalise that, because yes, I’m letting you down, and everybody knows I’m letting you down, but it’s in this context in which I’m also being valued for how hard I’m working on these important personal and career goals.

“It seems socially acceptable because we’ve made this shift that everybody should be doing all this amazing stuff. But we can’t do it all and what gets left over are these social occasions, because we’re taught that they’re not as important.”

This does not, necessarily, mandate flaking. However, it does make it potentially easier to forgive.

“I think there are people who are narcissists and I do think there are people who are unreliable and selfish and that is probably increasing, but that’s not because we’re all arseholes. That’s because we’re in a social context in which it is being taught that that’s what we should be doing.”

And it gets worse. Because the modern world allows us to more easily measure ourselves against others.

“That amps it right up,” says Overall. “You can see how you’re doing on any domain in an instant with just a Facebook scroll or a Google search. There is no end to it. There is no end to the ‘yes, you’ve done enough, you’re successful’.”

**
Why don’t we just say no to things in the first place?

Josie Campbell, 42, runs public relations company Great Things. Her job has, historically, included managing – and receiving – multiple arts and entertainment industry RSVP invites.

“I think New Zealanders hate confrontation,” she says. “And some people even see saying ‘no’ to something as confrontational. People feel bad because someone has invited them and they feel like they should go.”

Her advice? Send your “no” as soon as you possibly can and, if you do flake, at least email an apology the next day.

“Then they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s lovely of them,’ rather than ‘Oh, that’s three times in a row they haven’t showed up.’ Because you do notice.”

Because when you flake, someone else pays. Maybe your dinner party host pre-ordered oysters. Maybe that comp ticket to a tiny 60-seat theatre production could have gone to a paying guest. Maybe that restaurant that thought it was booked out is now running a loss. Maybe your friend hired a babysitter who is already halfway across town and can’t be cancelled. Maybe I’m just asking for a friend, but why do some people think it’s okay to be so consistently unreliable?

Campbell believes we are genuinely juggling more and more activities.

“One of the major things that has changed since I became an adult is that there are lot more events. There’s heaps more on and the way we communicate about them has also changed.

“We can’t blame Facebook for everything but I honestly do think the ability to click a button rather than interact with a person … it’s easier to flake on things, because we’ve automated everything.”

She speculates there might be an algebraic equation for optimal event attendance: “RSVP equals ‘am I into that genre times who invited me and do I like them?’ Maybe? I don’t know … but it’s a good rule of thumb for everything to remember there is a person or people working really hard at the other end. It’s honestly manners, isn’t it? I’m a great fan of manners.”

Let the record show that Campbell arranged to speak with me at midday on Monday. And when I phoned at exactly midday on Monday, she picked up.

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