If you’ve lived and breathed and owned a phone in the 21st century, chances are high that you’ve participated in what I like to call cancel-reschedule ping-pong: You make plans but somebody has to bail, so you move the date; sometimes it only takes one reschedule to pin things down, but some encounters stretch into full-on tournament mode, each of you lobbing proposed times at each other until you’re both fatigued by the whole thing. Things go one of two ways: Either you eventually abandon the meetup, or you let it sink further and further into the future, hoping that one day, by some astrological miracle, your calendars will finally align. (For reference, The New Yorker’s “Let’s Get Drinks” nails this phenomenon pretty well.)
It’s annoying, sure, but if you’re being honest with yourself, doesn’t it also feel at least a little good to bail? Comedian John Mulaney once quipped: “In terms of instant relief, canceling plans is like heroin … such instant joy.” I can’t disagree. As a reformed former chronic canceler, I knew that feeling all too well — the relief that would flood me like an endorphin rush after I flaked on brunches, after-work drinks, Tinder dates (a specialty), yoga classes, and networking events.
And I never had to search too hard for justification, either. The internet is rife with guides on how to reschedule (like an adult, gracefully, professionally, without feeling guilty), explainers on why people are flaky, and articles proclaiming that making plans is too hard because we’re all busy and stressed. But eventually, I began to wonder why I enjoyed it so much. These are my friends, and these are activities I supposedly want to do; why, then, did I feel at more at ease than sorry when I bailed?
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Social anxiety can play a role, but just because you choose canceling more than going out doesn’t necessarily mean you have a sign of the condition. “With social anxiety, you have a fear of being judged or rejected in social situations,” says Simon Rego, chief of psychology at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. “A lot of people with anxiety disorders manage their triggers with avoidance, and feel relieved when they don’t have to enter a situation that’s challenging for them.”
But neurobiologist Amy Banks, a therapist specializing in relational disconnection and the author of Wired to Connect, explains that it’s perfectly normal to feel a little bit of dread before social functions. People with social anxiety may continue to feel distressed throughout; for most people, though, those worries typically to dissipate once they’re there and in the groove. The challenge is in getting to that point.
According to Banks, one explanation for the joy of canceling is pretty straightforward: Some people’s schedules really are just that demanding, and flaking on plans is the easiest path to some much-needed downtime. “A lot of people underestimate how much they can take on, so canceling feels good because they just have too much going on and actually really need a night off,” she says.
It’s also possible that the joy you find in canceling is more a reflection of how you feel about the person you’re canceling on. “We might have relationships that don’t really feel mutual or equal, like when someone constantly hijacks the conversation or is condescending,” Banks explains. “Meeting up with those people might be stressful or draining, so we might experience relief when canceling because we don’t feel great about seeing them.” If that’s the case, she adds, you should spend some time figuring out if this is a connection that you want to work on improving or one that it’s okay to let go of, even temporarily.
And when the person in question is someone you rarely see face-to-face, it can feel like a monumental effort to make the leap from keeping tabs over social media to real-life interactions — compared to the ease of sending an occasional text or scrolling through an Instagram feed, in-person meetups can feel messy and inconvenient. “People feel that their needs for contact are met by keeping up with their [phone] so, being with people [in person] becomes burdensome,” says Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and the author of Reclaiming Conversation. “Meeting up can be stressful, but online or via text, our relationships are tidy: We can hide what we want to hide and evade people when things get uncomfortable.”
The flip side of this, of course, is that if a friendship exists primarily in the digital world, ditching your in-person plans can feel like an inconsequential act. “When we cancel plans online, we don’t have to see or hear the other’s disappointment or sadness,” Rego says. “When you have to encounter that person and their emotional reaction face-to-face, it becomes harder to bail, because you really have to process that you’re making someone potentially feel bad.”
But here’s what I wish I knew during my own stint as a chronic flake: The best way to break the habit is to just make fewer plans. If you’re really busy — and I mean truly engulfed in obligations, not just pretending to be busy — then don’t commit to things you won’t have the energy to follow through on. And either way, as Banks puts it, “Don’t make plans with people you feel ambivalent about.” It robs you of that sweet sensation of relief that comes from sending a “something came up” text, but it’s also much kinder — to the other person, yes, but also to your future self. Eventually, rescheduling ping-pong just gets exhausting.